By guest contributor: Fay Calderone, Partner, Employment Workplace Relations, Hall and Wilcox.
Many advocated for flexible work prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 and organisation were slowly but surely embracing the new world of work. However, the pandemic caused a paradigm shift in which all organisations were required to pivot to flexible working overnight, many before they had the appropriate infrastructures in place. In doing so, organisations demonstrated that change in the face of a crisis was able to occur and that flexible working was a viable option for workplaces, even for those who didn’t think it was possible.
This ‘forced experiment’ removed many of the structural barriers that had previously been faced by women, carers, parents, and people with disabilities, among others, and helped people balance their responsibilities to a greater extent. Flexible working remains a vital structural foundation for the creation of healthy and inclusive workplaces.
The future workweek
There will not be a one size fits all approach to flexible working. However, the consensus amongst employers and employees is that a hybrid model of both remote and in-office working is best. Characterised by Sam Mostyn as the ‘Great Exhaustion’, employers must account for employee wellbeing more than ever before. Employers should be less concerned with where employees work, but why they work.
A flexible approach to work will likely be here to stay. The future workplace may look like smaller head offices and more people working from satellite offices, co working spaces and from home. For those who do not wish to go back at all, leaders should ask:
- Who are the people in my team?
- What are their needs?
- Why do they need to come back to the office?
- Is this a place people want to be?
The greatest resource of a business is its people, and wellbeing promotes loyalty.
Should employers’ direct employees to return or reject remote working requests?
Under the National Employment Standards in Australia, employees (other than casual employees) are entitled to request flexible working provided they have worked for at least 12 months and if they fall under certain categories such as carers, parents of school aged children, employees with a disability among others.
Employers have 21 days to respond to requests and can only refuse on reasonable business grounds, such as cost, capacity, practicality or inefficiency or impact, but what were reasonable business grounds before the pandemic, may not be the case anymore as many employees have demonstrated they can work productively and efficiently from home.
However, it is important for employers to go beyond compliance and consider the need to rebuild employee trust and loyalty. The pandemic has driven burnout, lateral career moves and staff retention rates to plummet. Employers should exercise caution when rejecting flexible working requests when that very same model worked two years prior during the pandemic. Being rigid about flexibility will likely have an adverse effect on employers and organisations, who need employee trust and loyalty more than ever before. Employers should look at the big picture and provide employees with varying levels of flexibility rather than rejecting requests altogether. They should:
- Refresh organisational purpose and values to foster engagement;
- Update employment policies, procedures and playbooks that account for this new hybrid style of work;
- Restate role expectations and have constructive performance discussions – what were temporary adjustments to roles during lock downs and in the height of the pandemic (for example, client site visits not occurring) may not adequately reflect what is expected of employees in the long term;
- Have open discussions with employees about work policies and flexibility requests;
- Respect employee boundaries and continually monitor, promote and support employee well being initiatives; and
- Provide alternatives for employees in roles that do not allow for flexible working such as flexible hours, component jobs with flexibility or well being days to avoid divided workplaces and resentment by employees who can’t flex.
Flexible working is the future of the workplace. Employers that insist on 100% face time in the office do so at the risk of mass exodus and disengagement. Many organisations are preferring a hybrid model and there seems to be consensus among leaders and employees, with exceptions, that this is best for their workplaces. A careful balance is needed to ensure employee engagement, collaboration, innovation, ideas generation, learning and fun in the workplace including by creating allocated team days and purposeful engagement in the office or face to face interaction with employees working remotely. To maintain retention and high-performance in the wake of the great exhaustion, employers must prioritise well being and realign their business models with employee needs for more flexible and balanced lives.
For a sneak peek of the episode, see below!
For more insights into flexible work, don’t miss our recent chat with Fay Calderone and Dr Libby Sander, MBA Director and Assistant Professor, Bond University as part of our exclusive The Hub Q&A Blockbuster here.
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Fay Calderone, Partner – Employment & Workplace Relations, Hall & Wilcox
Fay has paved a path as a lawyer passionate about wellbeing and inclusion drawing on over 20 years of experience as an employment lawyer. She advises employers, presents at conferences, publishes articles and provides media commentary with a progressive approach to workplace issues including the elimination of discrimination, workplace bullying and sexual harassment encouraging employers to move “beyond compliance” to the creation of healthy, inclusive, respectful and flexible workplaces.