“I’d hate to think you’re using the Department as light entertainment.”
This sneering comment came from my manager as he knocked back my request for an additional four months leave-without-pay. I’d been back at work for a few months following the birth of my first child but due to personal circumstances, I needed some more time away from the office.
This incident was two decades ago when I worked for a government department as a young research scientist. Now, in 2018 when it comes to flexible working arrangements, I’d like to think things have changed somewhat since the 1990s.
That particular manager held the view that women working part-time in the workplace were a drain on resources and that I ‘obviously’ wasn’t committed to my scientific career if I wanted to access flexible work arrangements. He failed to understand that workplace flexibility actually delivers benefits all round; not just for employees but also the employer.
Bring on the Benefits
Earlier this year, a government report on Flexible work, good for business? quantified the significant benefits of flexible work strategies. The Nous Group was engaged by the Victorian Government to quantify the costs and benefits of more flexible work strategies. They reported that organisations can experience a net benefit of as much as 4% of their revenue as a result of flexible work conditions.
These benefits came from improvements in labour productivity, recruitment, retention and reduced absenteeism. The report noted that these benefits are significant and in some organisations:
can amount to tens of millions of dollars each year. Replicated across the entire economy, the net benefit could be in the billions. (Nous Group)
You only have to look around your own office or ask a sample of your friends about conditions at their workplace to know that flexible work practices are a popular and valued part of many people’s employment conditions.
Strategies such as varied start and finish times, or flexible leave arrangements (like 48/52) can support employees with carer responsibilities as a result of children or elderly parents. It’s a vital way to help carers manage all the tasks they need to get done each day such as meeting medical appointments that inevitably fall within work hours.
Part-time work or time-in-lieu can help volunteers manage the juggle of paid work with their other responsibilities. Think of the parent-coach who is able to leave the office at 3 pm to help with after-school sports.
Working from home or job-sharing can also assist people recovering from ill health to transition back to employment or help senior staff adjust their hours as they move towards retirement.
Flexible work strategies not only make good economic sense, they advance equality in the workplace for everyone.
Talk or walk?
The positive news is that in 2018 more workplaces are implementing flexible working strategies. The latest national data found 70.7% of organisations reporting to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) have a formal flexibility policy and/or strategy in place.
The not-so-good news is that there is still a need for considerable progress in terms of genuine action to deliver workplace flexibility for all employees. Unfortunately many employers still just view the issue as ‘allowing part-time hours for mums’. This reinforces gender stereotypes and according to WGEA, results in men feeling judged when they seek to consider more flexibility in their working hours and then disengaging from the opportunities on offer.
If you have a flexible work strategy in place, it may be interesting for you to consider does your organisation’s action reflect their talk? WGEA reports that only about 1-in-4 organisations with flexible work strategies actually provide training for managers on flexible work and just 1-in-20 set targets for employee engagement in flexible work.
This ‘action gap’ is impeding progress and it’s probably costing your business money. (To find out how much check out the FlexiWork Calculator). The WGEA Manager Flexibility toolkit explains how to turn the talk into action.
Entertained AND committed
In the end, there was a happy outcome to my request for flexible leave.
As a new mother requesting a few extra months leave without pay, I eventually received approval following my appeal to the HR manager. Like many employees satisfied with flexible work conditions, I went onto to work for that organization as an engaged, committed (and entertained!) employee for another 15 years.
That sneering manager has long since retired, but the Department where I once worked (now called DEWLP) this year reported an annual saving of $31 million dollars as a result of their workplace flexibility programs. Thankfully many Department heads now value workplace flexibility because it’s not only the right thing to do for equality, but it also make good business sense.
Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for equality in local government through her work as a consultant and coach. www.ruthmcgowan.com