How flexible should you be with flexible workplace policies?

Between remote working and employees’ increasing desire for flexibility, Australian businesses have come to a turning point in workforce management. In this article Andrew Wilson, CEO at leading payroll and HCM solutions provider, Ascender, discusses the importance of being flexible with workplace flexibility and the steps that can be taken to ensure employee wellbeing and productivity during times of stress.

In the past few months, COVID-19 has remoulded our lives significantly. There’s been a rise in the number of businesses who have turned homes into offices and Zoom into daily conference rooms. Australians who have had a taste of working from home are keen to maintain this flexibility.

Yet what COVID-19 attests is not only businesses’ short-term responsiveness in the narrow context of an obligatory lockdown nationwide. Ascender’s recent research shows over half (54 per cent) of Aussies are keen to continue working from home, with one in three (37 per cent) willing to give up a small portion of their pay to do so. In the post-COVID era, such a mentality will intensify and manifest in the pursuit of other flexible work arrangements, such as flexible pay, job-sharing, purchased leave and more.

The current spotlight is on businesses’ willingness and ability to build a workforce culture that is flexible and sustainable. The Fair Work Commision (FWC)’s latest draft flexible work clauses, rolled out in September, attests to the nation’s growing desire for a more liberal work environment, allowing employers and employees to work flexibly via a range of methods, such as changing work hours or reducing overall hours via joint agreement.

Now that the door has been opened to greater flexibility, employers should be leveraging all practices possible with the goal of providing long-term, sustainable flexibility to all employees.

When considering all the variables behind flexible working, such as working hours, workforce proximity, employee preference and the nature of their job, it becomes clear that a one-for-all solution no longer works.

Being flexible with flexibility
In the post-COVID era, stringent policies mandating staff to work from home on a full-time basis will no longer work. Businesses hoping to offer flexibility should ask themselves, what do my people want and how can I best address those expectations? Behind the 37 per cent of Aussies that would take a pay cut to remain working from home, we found that 47 per cent of the survey pool are saving more money and over a quarter are living a healthier lifestyle with increased work productivity. Employees’ mental health, financial situation and work-life balance are the key things employers should be looking at when developing flexible arrangements, so that they can best address those work and lifestyle needs.

A hybrid approach to staying connected
Businesses also need to think about how to maintain barrier-free communication to keep employees engaged and business activity running. In communication theory, the Allen Curve reflects that people are four times as likely to interact regularly with someone sitting six feet away from them as with someone 60 feet away. Further, colleagues located on separate floors or in separate buildings are less likely to have unplanned interactions with one another.

Steve Jobs proposed that creativity comes from spontaneous meetings and random discussions. It only takes little mental effort to surmise how indefinite remote working could diminish creativity completely, with employees growing accustomed to the blinding convenience of chatting through a screen, thriving within the limits of informative yet non-imaginative conversations.

As distance-shrinking technology accelerates, physical proximity holds its unique value in gluing the workforce together via spontaneity and surprises. Remote working and digital communication should be a complementary element deployed to support the growth of an existing workplace culture. A well-rounded workplace flexibility plan should recognise and incorporate both online and offline communication tools, so that convenience doesn’t come at the cost of creativity.

Being flexible means having the willingness and ability to adapt and change with time, circumstances, and role responsibilities. Given the unknown variables that surround the COVID-19 crisis, employers hoping to build a flexible workplace need to be ready for a series of conversations with their employees.

Staying nimble to shift with regulation and policies
Legislation and regulation have taken various turns this year. In March, the FWC tightened policies around record keeping and introduced the concept of ‘outer limit’ hours, greatly removing the perceptions of flexibility such as adjusted work hours and remote working.

Now that there is a steady growth in Aussies’ desire for more ‘freedom’, FWC rolled out a draft award flexibility schedule in September, introducing the offering of flexible work hours, compressed and reduced hours upon agreement, and the opportunity to exchange pay for extra annual leave. These rules will come into effect in the coming months, assisting businesses in adopting a more liberal workforce.

While this is good news for Aussies, the legislative changes that took place in a matter of months suggest the volatility of policies that could directly impact how a business is performing. For now, businesses need to start asking themselves – How much flexibility is enough? How to maintain productivity and motivation while offering employees carte blanche? How to calculate time-tracking and pay with accuracy? How to schedule pay cycles for employees who work on flexible hours to support their financial wellness? Finally, how can they build a resilient and agile workforce that can quickly adapt to future uncertainties? Every business’s situation is unique, so it is encouraged that they seek professional, independent advice from experts like The Association for Payroll Specialists to make sure they’re on the right track from both a corporate and legal perspective.

A well-rounded workplace flexibility plan should recognise and incorporate both online and offline communication tools, so that convenience doesn’t come at the cost of creativity.

Working from home is great, but there’s more to that
When considering all the variables behind flexible working, such as working hours, workforce proximity, employee preference and the nature of their job, it becomes clear that a one-for-all solution no longer works. A team member whose work is very individual in nature, such as a journalist, may find the out-of-office environment nurtures better focus to help them beat deadlines. Meanwhile, someone whose job requires collaborative efficiency, such as an engineer or project manager, may derive greater benefit from face-to-face communication to complete projects faster. Not to mention drivers, retail workers and anyone whose role requires an on-site presence at all times, which puts remote working out of the question in the scheme of workplace flexibility.

Being flexible means having the willingness and ability to adapt and change with time, circumstances, and role responsibilities. Given the unknown variables that surround the COVID-19 crisis, employers hoping to build a flexible workplace need to be ready for a series of conversations with their employees. Amid heightened expectations and shifting workplace legislation, those who are flexible with flexibility will eventually be rewarded with high employee engagement, work productivity and great business reputation.

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