Staff love it, and managers will have to learn to if they’re to find and keep the best employees. Flexible working conditions are here to stay. Jane Cherrington reports.
The 30-something job candidate was clearly the best of the field for the finance manager position, but he had some prerequisites of his own. He had recently become a father, was studying for a postgraduate degree, lived an hour from the company’s offices and was looking for a flexible employer.
Faced with a lack of other suitable candidates, the medium-sized company agreed to study leave, a four-day week and the option to work from home. While not unusual in public sector organisations and larger corporates, flexible working options are increasingly being introduced into other businesses.
Organisations are taking some fairly radical steps to get their employees of choice, says Heather Oliver of recruitment firm Talent2, who has noticed a change in the job negotiation process now the candidate is more likely to hold the cards in industries where skilled workers are hard to find. Potential employees are looking for organisations that will do above and beyond to accommodate their need, says Oliver.
Feeding the push to more flexible work is the convergence of a number of trends: improved mobile technology; the demand for family-friendly working environments and improved work-life balance; the spiralling skill shortage and the ageing workforce. Not only do employees expect to be offered something more interesting and useful than the old-fashioned 9 to 5 regime, employers often do not have any choice but to agree.
One multinational employer advertised 10 vacancies for trade positions at a plant on the NSW central coast earlier this year. Ten candidates applied for the job, and all 10 were hired. Were they all qualified? No, says the line manager who appointed them. But at least they were all interested in the job. We’ll just have to train them now.
And it’s only going to get worse. All the statistics on the availability of labour in the next five to 10 years show there’s going to be a significant shortage of talent, says John Colvin, Managing Director of recruiter Hamilton, James & Bruce.
In the 10 years to 1992, 56 per cent of labour market growth came from the 35-44 age group and 31 per cent from the 45+ group, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. But expectations for the 2000-2010 decade are that only 7 per cent of labour force growth will be in the 35-44 age group. People aged over 45 will account for more than 80 per cent of growth in Australia ‘s labour force to 2016.
Competing head-to-head with other employers and offering better pay and conditions is one way to fill jobs. Another is to look beyond the usual candidates. The as yet untapped talent pools of older workers and women with young families are more likely to be attracted to work that accommodates their lifestyles and families. Provide conditions that suit these workers, and there’s a wealth of skills and experience waiting.
Meanwhile, keeping employees on staff past the usual retirement age and providing family-friendly conditions that convince new mothers to return to work means considerable savings on recruitment.
Colvin says it costs between 150-250 per cent of an employee’s base salary to replace a person. If we accept that the cost of turnover is 200 per cent of base salary and a company loses 10 people per year at an average base salary of $50,000, the cost of turnover equates to $1 million dollars. That should make senior management seriously consider flexibility as a creative retention strategy, he says.
The public face of flexibility
A survey of Australian Public Service (APS) employees, the Annual State of the Service report, confirms the appeal. Flexible working conditions were rated as the second most important contributing factor in achieving job satisfaction after good working relationships’.
The impetus for flexible working arrangements in the APS is partly driven by a requirement by the Public Service Commissioner that agency heads include measures directed at ensuring that workplace structures, systems and procedures assist employees in balancing their work, family and other caring responsibilities.
Flexi-time in the public service was once the much maligned (by outsiders) face of flexible working conditions but today the public sector is seen as a pioneer of benefits such as part-time work, job sharing, study leave and parental leave. Over time, public sector agencies have relaxed what was once a highly regulated system of flexible working conditions.
In the past they tried to have one system fits all, a standard set of core hours, and a standard set of hours that could be accumulated, says Greg Vines, Deputy Secretary, Industrial Relations in the Victorian Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development.
But now there is much greater flexibility. The very basic provisions would be included in a certified agreement, but the detail is worked out at the local workplace level to suit the needs of that workplace, he says.
Importantly, says Vines, line managers and supervisors can make or break the flexible working arrangement schemes. A lot of public sector agreements have absolutely fantastic provisions, very flexible. But it takes a bit of management nous to make some of the situations work and you may have managers who are reluctant to support it. Therefore, despite having great provisions, very few get to use them.
This is something we’ve looked at in a number of areas to encourage managers to see the long- and short-term benefits of being more flexible in their thinking, he says.
Mary Berkopec, Marketing and Sales Manager for international workplace coaching organisation, Results Coaching Systems, says that the opportunity to work for a dynamic organisation on a global level from her own home office is the perfect solution for many parents.
I have the opportunity to spend quality time with my four-year-old while concentrating on my own career. Working for Results allows me the flexibility to work the days and hours that suit my lifestyle and not miss important events in my child’s growing years. I have the best of both worlds, says Berkopec.
David Rock, founder and CEO of Results says that going remote not only provided flexibility in working hours, but also created a connected community, focused on delivering results and often working beyond the call of duty.
Despite the evidence stacking up in favour of flexible working arrangements, many employers still have their doubts. A survey of 600 Australian and New Zealand firms has found that mistrust of flexible workers is prevalent.
The survey, carried out by Sweeney Research on behalf of Toshiba Australia ‘s Information Systems Division, also found that the main obstacle to introducing flexible work is a perceived difficulty in monitoring and supervising employees.
The mistrust issue is a really peculiar one, says business strategist and researcher, Dr James Cowley. There’s a case study I use often: a manager sits in the office and they can see all these people looking at their computer screens and they think they’re working. What they don’t realise is that half of them are thinking about their upcoming skiing holiday.
On the other hand, says Cowley, someone at home may have started at 7am, because they prefer an early start, and be working hard. Strangely, managers don’t believe they are working if they can’t see them working.
What I think has happened is that we’ve got trapped somewhere back in the industrial revolution. We changed factories so we could radically change supply times and introduce just-in-time production. But we actually haven’t done that in office-based employment.
Meanwhile, Melbourne-based IT firm, Australian Project & Consulting Services is so confident about its flexible working conditions that it doesn’t even have enough desks to accommodate its entire staff at once. The firm, named Australia’s top IT employer for 2004 by ZDNet Australia magazine, allows staff to work wherever and whenever they want, as long as they get the job done.
The firm manages performance by keeping an eye on the various projects and regularly reviewing each staff member’s key performance indicators.
We believe we get a lot more out of our staff, says Managing Director Scott Coleman.
If flexible work options can survive the pressure-cooker environment of a major law firm, it could be argued they’re suitable for any business.
Minter Ellison introduced a new package of flexible work arrangements for both partners and staff about four years ago. The firm provides opportunities for people to work part-time, job-share and work remotely from home. It provides paid parental leave, runs parenting programs, has breastfeeding facilities available in the office and assists its people with information about child care facilities.
One result is that the number of staff returning to work after parental leave has almost doubled from 47 per cent in 2001 to 80 per cent now.
Our product is our people and their knowledge, really says Robert Marriott, Minter Ellison’s HR director. The thing is, when you’ve got a very valuable, experienced lawyer who wants to take time out for various reasons be it family or other it’s always useful to be able to retain their services. That means you’ve still retained that knowledge and avoided the costs of replacement, potentially, as well.
Minter Ellison has embraced flexible work arrangements because they reflect the firm’s values, says Marriott. One of our values is something we call balance’ which is respecting each other’s needs outside work and the diverse contributions people can make to improve the firm internally.
Marriott says the move is also about remaining competitive. There are other firms beginning to move in this area some more than others but that’s only one side of the equation for us.