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A new report titled The Power of Flexibility published this month highlights what’s needed in Australian workplaces to leverage flexible working.

The report by CEW (Chief Executive Women) and Bain & Company found that flexibility is a key enabler to boost gender parity and employee engagement.

It shines a light on three key areas:

  1. A strong case for flexible working
  2. Good foundation, but plenty of room for improvement
  3. Four key actions to leverage flexible working

The report also features a list of questions organisations can use to measure whether they are effectively set up for flexible working. See page 18 of the report titled: Is your organisation set up for flexible working?

Other key take-outs from the report include:

Our times are changing

Australian organisations are increasingly realising that, to retain talent and remain relevant, they need to prepare for a future where flexible work is standard in any role. Thankfully, technology is enabling organisations to shift away from a “face time” culture.  As David Thodey, former Telstra CEO and member of the Male Champions of Change, points out, management philosophies have not kept up with technological advances. “Every job can be done flexibly. We have the enabling technology, now we need the enabling culture… You need a performance-based culture, where flexibility is just built in.”

Flexible working in Australia is still not the norm

Flexible working is still viewed as the exception to the rule in the majority of Australian companies. Less than 50% of organisations have a workplace flexibility policy. And even when such policies exist, they are not always effectively utilised.

Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency found that only 48% of non-public-sector organisations with more than 100 employees have a formal policy in place on flexible working arrangements. Furthermore, uptake remains modest: 38% of female respondents and 28% of male respondents use flexible work arrangements, according to the survey.

There are organisational benefits of flexible working

The good news is there is a powerful case for implementing flexible work arrangements, as they create positive advocacy about the organisation when widely used. This is not surprising – An organisation with flexible arrangements as the norm signals a workplace with progressive policies and actions, and more engaged employees. Furthermore, when looking at employees utilising flexible arrangements, it was found that women working flexibly are stronger advocates of their organisations than those who are not. The research also debunked the myth that women seeking flexible options have checked out of their careers. It was found that women who work flexibly are equally, if not more, committed to reaching their full career potential than those who don’t.  However, the same trends do not hold true for men. In fact, advocacy was lower for men who are or have worked flexibly. This suggests that organisations have not yet cracked the code on how to make such arrangements work for male employees.

This finding is consistent with previous Bain research conducted in the US, which found an equally strong correlation between the adoption of flexible working arrangements and employee advocacy.

The experience for men

A male respondent observed: “The flexible work provisions are clearly available as a policy of the firm, so you are not required to negotiate”, streamlining the process for all. “[Flexibility] enables us to better respond in times of high client demand by getting compensating breaks in times of lower demand,” noted another male respondent, echoing the many survey respondents who cited higher productivity and less stress as prime outcomes of their experience.

While women’s advocacy soars with flexible work, men’s declines.

This could be an indicator that, with men being behind women in their rate of uptake of flexible working, they are suffering the stigmas and biases that women experienced more severely in the early days of their use of flexible working.

Men who are not satisfied with their flexible working experiences cite as key issues a lack of senior support and the negative view of working flexibly held by their peers and management. “While opportunities exist, the environment that management creates makes it difficult to participate,” said one.

Men are also twice as likely as women to have their request to work flexibly rejected.

The negative experience of flexible working

The survey also sought to understand the factors behind negative experiences with flexible working. Not surprisingly, women who are not satisfied with flexible working cite facing unrealistic expectations from others as the key issue they face. This is often due to trying to work full-time jobs in part-time roles. “The work doesn’t reduce, just the hours you have to do the work in and the remuneration you receive for doing the work,” noted one respondent. Lack of respect of boundaries when working part-time also was highlighted, with a respondent noting “meetings scheduled without regard to when I’m not working, constant expectation to join on my day at home.

What do employees want & what can companies do?

The relative importance of factors that improve employees’ experience with flexible working models shows respondents most value career progression, visible support and respect of boundaries.

To enable this, companies need to provide access to quality flexible work options that are correctly scoped and actively supported.

To improve employees’ experiences with flexible working models, organisations need to take four actions:

  • Actively encourage uptake and make working flexibly the standard for every role;
  • Ensure flexible arrangements are working successfully for both women and men;
  • Ensure the right culture and active support is in place, with a strong commitment from the CEO and leadership team; and
  • Provide clear policies, set up enabling technology and create an agile work environment.

If organisations get this right, flexible work arrangements can be used to boost productivity and advocacy, increase employee retention, provide the conditions for increased representation of women in senior leadership positions, and enable men and women to participate more equally as caregivers and secure a better work-life balance.

The message here is clear – if organisations want to be known for helping women progress to senior levels, they must go beyond simply offering flexible work policies. They must actively encourage and role model the widespread use of flexible working arrangements.

Case examples – Westpac and Telstra

Accompanying Telstra’s high rates of parental leave return and retention (higher than 90%), the number of male managers at Telstra taking primary parental leave increased threefold in the past year from 0.8% to 2.3%—an insight into shifting culture, and a new norm around men and flexibility at Telstra.

More than 63% of Westpac employees now work flexibly. Importantly, flexibility is viewed as a crucial enabler of gender equity and Westpac’s commitment to their Women in Leadership target of 50% by 2017.


For the full report visit Bain & Company.