It’s time to Flex: Embrace flexible working or flounder in the future

The following article was first published in the Diversity Council Australia.  

An extensive body of research demonstrates the business benefits of flexible working, and yet flexible work and careers are not mainstreamed in most Australian workplaces and seem only to be available to a select few. In the face of globalisation, technology advancements and demographic shifts, Diversity Council Australia believes organisations need to rethink their approach to flexibility.

Lisa Annese, DCA’s CEO, said organisations need to stop tinkering around the edges of flexible working or they will be left behind.

“The World Economic Forum predicts that we are on the cusp of a ‘fourth industrial revolution’.  Technological, socio-economic and demographic shifts are transforming the way we work, demanding flexibility in the way individuals, teams and organisations work. We need to grasp the opportunity to be more creative and innovative when it comes to work design.

“Our members repeatedly request guidance on how they can build leaders’ ability to (re)design work and jobs. This is a critical obstacle to mainstreaming flexibility in their workplaces and experiencing the associated business benefits,” said Lisa.

DCA’s new research project, Future-Flex, seeks to challenge and change mindsets and outdated assumptions about the nature of work, the ‘ideal’ worker (who is full time with no responsibilities outside of work), and what drives performance and productivity in organisations.

Future-Flex gives organisations the tools to mainstream flexibility by looking at work design with the team, and the whole organisation, in mind rather than coming up with ad-hoc arrangements,” said Lisa.

“Those organisations that fail to adopt a different approach to flexible work will be unable to experience the benefits or meet future challenges – and that’s not good for anyone,” added Lisa.

What is driving change?

  • Employees. The demands and expectations of today’s diverse, multi-generational, mobile workforce are transforming where, when and how we work. In Australia, more mothers with children are employed than ever before and dual-earner families are commonplace, with 63% of two parent families with dependent children having both parents employed.  Workforce participation rates of older workers are rising.  All these employee segments seek flexible work and this demand is only likely to increase in the future.
  • Globalisation. Globalisation, the development of a 24/7 marketplace, and the rapid expansion of the services economy are also having a transformational effect on the workplace, requiring organisations to think creatively about how they can best organise jobs and work to respond to an increasingly diverse and demanding consumer/client base. Companies are increasingly working across time zones and with global virtual teams.
  • Technology. Technology is both a driver and an enabler of flexibility. Technology has dramatically reshaped workplaces, blurring the boundaries between work and home and diversifying where, when and how employees work. Advances in mobile, internet and cloud technologies, the rapid development of computing power, the computerised connection of multiple objects, and the increasing relevance of Big Data have all driven workplace innovations such as remote working, telecommuting, co-working spaces, video/teleconferencing, and virtual teams and collaboration. 
  • Culture. Like technology, organisational culture is both a driver and an enabler of flexibility, arguably the most critical of all enablers. Building a culture of future-focused flexibility requires a sustained strategic change approach that is structured around business goals and outcomes and is supported at the highest levels of an organisation.

How should workplaces respond?

DCA has developed new Future-Flex tools to build flexible teams, jobs and organisations, with a specific focus on retail environments. The tools were developed following a review of international and national industry and academic literature about workplace flexibility and the future of work; interviews and liaison with staff working in a retail environment; and our own extensive experience assisting workforces make flexible work and flexible careers standard business practice.

Future-Flex creates organisations in which employees can access flexibility for all roles, for any reason, and can have successful engaged careers. This new approach:

  • Starts with the Team. More than just accommodating an individual’s needs, Future-Flex is about re-designing work at a team or whole of organisation level. Employees are key partners in developing team?based flexibility solutions that work.
  • Treats Flexibility as a Business-Tool. Future-Flex emphasises the goals of both the organisation and its employees. It focuses on flexible work that boosts the performance and wellbeing of organisations, teams and individuals. Meeting business goals in areas such as customer service, innovation, growth and efficiency is central to Future-Flex.
  • Considers Culture. Future-Flex recognises that organisational and team cultures are critical to the success of workplaces where employees can access flexibility for all roles and for any reason, and can have successful, engaged careers.
  • Challenges Bias. Shifting to a Future-Flex mindset involves being aware of our own biases – conscious and unconscious. Many people make assumptions about what it means to be a flexible worker (e.g. about people’s career aspirations, interest in training and development, levels of commitment to the organisation etc.) Future-Flex tools explore and challenge these biases.

Future-Flex tools help organisations make flexibility a mainstream element of their workplace. Access the Synopsis Report, full report and additional resources here

Future-Flex is a partnership initiative between DCA, the Retail Council, National Australia Bank, Allens, IBM, BAE Systems Australia and IAG, which generates practical guidance for managers, teams and individuals on how to implement and mainstream workplace flexibility through work design.