‘Flexible work’ is certainly not new terminology; however the type and extent of this flexibility has really changed this past year. Prior to the pandemic around 30 per cent of employees had an agreement to work flexible hours or work from home, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Yet in the peak of the crisis last year, over 1.6 million Australians were working from home. Aussie workplaces responded quickly and effectively during these times, setting up thousands of workers with the tools and resources to continue working remotely. But as restrictions lift, the needle on what is perceived as ‘normal’ has shifted, with more workers seeking to continue this way of working, at least in part. Research conducted by Boston Consulting Group found that up to 60% of workers are wanting to continue working 2-3 days at home in what is being termed a ‘hybrid return.’ But is this feasible for all businesses?

Big corporates including PwC, Commonwealth Bank, and GPT Group are giving up to half of their employees the choice to continue working from home for the time being. Similarly, software developer Atlassian is letting all employees work from home permanently if they choose to, whilst still committing to a brand new $1 billion headquarters in Sydney’s CBD. Worley, a global engineering services provider with offices in Australia, is expected to save almost $70 million in costs by the end of this year by either down-sizing or closing offices around the world, with at least 50% of their staff to continue working from home. Sodexo, a global provider of healthcare services, have created ‘Team A’ and ‘Team B’ which alternate between working from home and the office to manage social distancing measures, provide flexibility and manage risk if a staff member on either team was to test positive to COVID by keeping the other team safe.

Depending on the type of work delivered, for other businesses hybrid work models may not be so practical. As we enter this new world of work, businesses around the country are tackling issues such as:

  • Finding a model of work for staff that meets their unique needs and circumstances, whilst ensuring work delivery isn’t compromised.
  • Maintaining a positive company culture when physical interaction and communication is decreased.
  • Protecting the mental health and welfare of their staff where high stress (personal and professional) and digital overload (eg. Zoom fatigue) are prominent.
  • Learning and implementing new technologies that will support company goals and objectives, but don’t contribute to the aforementioned digital overwhelm.
  • Attracting and retaining talent in an increasingly competitive market.
  • Managing remote teams to retain engagement and productivity levels.
  • The oftentimes considerable cost savings on reducing office size.
  • Company vaccination policies.
  • Providing job security to staff in a dynamic and unpredictable landscape.

Establishing policies and procedures can provide businesses with a framework based on fairness, and one that prioritises business needs. We’ve read a few policies on flexible work that give clear instructions on eligibility, procedure for application, the approval process and even etiquette. Companies can also offer trial periods for new working arrangements that give both parties the freedom to revert to existing work patterns if required. KPIs and other metrics can be used to determine the relative success or failure, helping companies make decisions whilst showing suitable levels of respect to their staff’s requests.

Fair Work also provides basic but useful information on flexible work requests which can be found here.

Whichever way businesses choose to progress, one thing is for certain; there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Each business is different, as are the needs and preferences of each individual. A well-researched, well-planned human approach is required to address a human problem. Workplaces provide different things to different people, including mothers and fathers, younger generations and disadvantaged groups. Consistent consultation with staff will ensure workers feel engaged and involved in decision making. Whereas dismissing requests from staff without due consideration can decrease motivation, engagement and productivity; resulting in employees seeking opportunities elsewhere. Seeing an employee’s overall contribution to the workplace (in their work, culture and collaboration style) will help managers to think of the ‘bigger picture’ and have productive discussions. Equally employees will also benefit from closely considering the needs of the business and what they can deliver from where when making requests for greater flexibility in the way that they work.