The flexible workplace myth

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Imagine a company where staff are able to turn up and leave when they want. If their children are sick or if they just feel like it, the employees stay home and work. They understand their tasks and responsibilities; how, when and where they achieve it is up to them. If they have to have facetime with a client, and are unable to be there, then they find somebody else to do that for them.

Sounds like the sort of company that could only exist in one of those sickenly progressive, economically prosperous and ridiculously blonde and tall Scandinavian countries, doesn’t it?

But it turns out that the company in question is right here in Australia. Organisational psychology consulting firm Sales Acuity has a staff of 12, all of whom have kids. Most of them work part-time or are associates who work casually.

Victoria Chow, Managing Consultant of Sales Acuity, says that in the ten years since she and her husband started the company, flexible work has been a key to their success. 

‘We’ve never really experienced any downsides and it is something that we try to foster because we know how hard it was for us with our own family,’ says Chow. ‘It’s just always worked and if it hadn’t worked we would have changed it. We’re proud of it.’

With changes introduced to the Fair Work Act at the beginning of this year, Sales Acuity may soon become less of an outlier. Under the amendments, mature and disabled workers and those with caring responsibilities, both male and female, have the right to request flexible work arrangements.

It’s great for everyone. Except perhaps those employees who have the temerity to exercise their rights and actually ask for flexible conditions.

Research suggests that many employees who request flexible work arrangements may face what Joan C Williams from the University of California calls ‘flexible stigma’.

As Williams told the New York Times, ‘Many times these policies are on the books, but informally everyone knows you are penalised for using them.’

Employees — mostly women — who dare to exercise their legal rights to request flexible employment conditions such as working part-time, working from home on some days or having non-standard start and finishing times can find themselves ‘restructured’ into unemployment or shuffled off to the mummy (or occasionally daddy) track which equates to unsatisfying work or even career suicide.

Add to this that your colleagues may end up hating you. A 2012 report from British workplace information firm Croner, found that flexible working conditions fueled ‘workplace conflict’ with other employees resenting those who are able to work part-time or leave the office early.

Is it any wonder that the 2012 Australian Work Life Index found that only 43 per cent of eligible women and a paltry 19.8 per cent of men made a flexibility request?

The latest edition of the Journal of Social Issues suggests that men seeking flexible work arrangements suffer even greater stigma than women because caregiving responsibilities challenges the breadwinning ideal, making the employee seem less of a man.

When it comes to equality, social justice and quality of life, providing flexible work options to employees — without the negative consequences — is a no-brainer. The harsh reality of business, however, is that corporations’ primary responsibility is not to the common good, but to maximise shareholder profits.

But to view flexible work options and good business as mutually exclusive is antiquated and shortsighted. Clinging to full-time work as the norm for every employee and doubting the commitment of anyone with caring responsibilities is not only socially irresponsible — it’s also bad business.

Given that flexible working is now enshrined in law and Australia’s aging population will increase the caring responsibilities of employees, flexible working conditions are here to stay. Companies that deny this reality and maintain the outdated business practices of the last Century will become dinosaurs.

Bums on seats is no longer the best measure for a productive workforce – especially since said bums can spend all day dutifully sitting in their cubical but subversively pimping their Facebook profile.

If companies start to value the quality of employees' output rather than the quantity of their input, then flexible working arrangements become an opportunity rather than a cost. And those who choose to exercise their legal rights at ask for flexible work conditions are less likely to be stigmatised. 

Of course not every industry and job type can be fully flexible. But for many workers, particularly in Australia with our high proportion of information workers, flexible working conditions is a realistic option.

As Victoria Chow puts it, ‘We don’t ever lose any staff. Nobody leaves. Staff just stay with us because it suits them and they are really happy.’

Kasey Edwards is a change management consultant and the author of Thirty-Something and Over It: What happens when you wake up and don’t want to go to work. Ever again. www.kaseyedwards.com

22 comments

  • In my last job one of my co-workers was a mother of four young children and she often struggled with the unspoken but obvious expectations of our manager that she should put the job before her kids. She worked extremely hard, never took proper lunch breaks and was always punctual in an effort to compensate for the odd day she had to take off or work from home when one of the kids was sick. Our manager was still somewhat annoyed when she did this even though she more than made up for it. I hardly ever called in sick or took time off either, but when I wanted to take three days off before my wedding he didn't like it, even though it wasn't a particularly busy period. I can see his business becoming one of those dinosaurs.

    I think managers need to wake up and realise that employees do have a life outside work (at least some of us do) and it needn't make us any less productive if we are given the flexibility we need and deserve. If managers are not prepared to meet their employees half-way, then they can expect to lose them completely.

    Commenter
    Mellah
    Date and time
    July 17, 2013, 12:31AM
    • It may not even be personal on your bosses part. Especially when it comes to time-sensitive tasks. Your boss no doubt has their own boss to report to, and while they understand intellectually that you can't plan kids, it's difficult to make sympathetic clucking noises while you're mentally re-writing your afternoon to squeeze in someone elses work load. I know, because I'm in that position now with someone with kids who seem to get every cold going. There's nothing I can say, obviously I never give her a hard time over it.

      But I wear the consequences and the stresses of her early departures, because of course I don't have kids, so I don't have a 'real' life of my own, right?

      Commenter
      Disgruntled Goat
      Location
      Itchy & Scratchy Land
      Date and time
      July 17, 2013, 2:27PM
    • Exactly! People have lives to live - you know, that thing that is slowly wasting away while you're spending all your time at work?

      Work / life balance is something that seems to be very lacking in Australian society - Australians are some of the hardest-worked citizens in the Western world, is this a good thing?

      Commenter
      Jane Doe
      Date and time
      July 17, 2013, 2:38PM
  • Do these "flexible" employees also volunteer to work on Sundays and Public Holidays whenever they can just like small business owners must?

    Commenter
    Belinda
    Location
    NSW
    Date and time
    July 17, 2013, 8:17AM
    • No. Totally irrelevant to this story. If you make the choice to operate a small business, that's a big part of the game.

      Commenter
      Jane Doe
      Date and time
      July 17, 2013, 2:39PM
    • @Jane Doe. I'm a parent but I'm not sure I see your logic. Sure, owning a small business is a choice but so is being a parent. Belinda is saying is that flexibility should work both ways. Sounds reasonable/fair to me. Workers want to be able to leave a job on a whim but if an employer wants to terminate the relationship they're open to unfair dismissal. Employees want to be able to take off a weekday if their kid is sick but if they're asked to come in on a weekend demand penalty rates (or have Labor demand it for them). Either the workplace is flexible for all parties or it isn't.

      Commenter
      JohnW
      Date and time
      July 17, 2013, 3:17PM
  • The example company given here is a bit of an outlier in that all of the employees have kids and therefore it's to everyone's benefit to be flexible. Most companies aren't like this though, it's probably more like 50% or less of workers have kids that require adult supervision. In which case if you're part of the majority for who the default is no flexibility and leaving at 5 o'clock is a dream, you tend to get a bit disenchanted with the few who do.

    Commenter
    Hurrow
    Date and time
    July 17, 2013, 9:19AM
    • I'm very fortunate to work for a company that supports flexible working arrangements. Today I started work at 7am, as I need to leave earlier to take my cat to the vet. I will check emails while I'm out to see if there is anything urgent that needs following up.
      However, what annoys me about flexible working arrangements is that in some instances, it is seen that only parents with children need flexibility in their working lives, and that single people are available at all times. I was once given the task of minutes secretary for an evening meeting held once a week because I was the only member of my team without children. Nevermind, that this meeting was on the night where I volunteered as a netball umpire.

      Commenter
      MJ
      Date and time
      July 17, 2013, 9:46AM
      • A netball umpire... Hmm, so are you suggesting that the company should've instead had one of the mothers stay back and leave her child without a carer so you could attend a volunteer ball game? The fact is that the majority of us will become parents at when we hit our 30's. When we're in our 20's we do cover for those people and expect the same for us when we hit that stage in our lives. The system seems to work rather well, but you seem to think you've got a better one. Please advise what it is. I'm a parent now and get more flexibility than my non-parent colleagues, but when I was younger and without a kid I did the covering and didn't complain. But hey, you could always turn to the lady next to you and say "Can you stay back tonight and not see your kid because I absolutely HAVE to watch a ball game?". The truth is nothing is more important that children. Doesn't matter who it is. Your ball game certainly isn't and when it's your turn to have kids some other workers ball game/late night beers/tupperware party won't be either.

        Commenter
        JohnW
        Date and time
        July 17, 2013, 3:25PM
      • JohnW what if MJ doesn't want to have kids? What if she's (I think MJ is a she, not sure) unable to do so? Should someone still be expected to cover for other people knowing that it will not be reciprocated down the line if they're not planning on having kids?

        I think it's great that some people choose to have children but given the company doesn't really care what I do out of hours so long as it's legal, why should one persons choice take priority over someone elses?

        Commenter
        Hurrow
        Date and time
        July 17, 2013, 4:15PM

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