Economic Crisis? An opportunity for workplace flexibility
Written By: Juliet Bourke, Guest Contributor, 2008.
There has never been a better time to implement workplace flexibility. In this economic climate, flexibility (e.g. reduced hours, sabbaticals and working from home) offers a smart way to reduce overheads and meet employee needs for great work-life balance. Research also shows that implementing flexibility will help improve productivity through its association with increased levels of engagement, job-satisfaction and well-being.
But how can these theoretical benefits be realised? Is it simply a matter of developing a flexible work practices policy? To answer these questions, the usual starting point would be to canvass the views of employers and employees. A fresh perspective has been provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Network of Australasia (EEONA) through its research of Human Resource/diversity practitioners in best practice organisations.
Launched in July 2008, EEONA’s 2008 Status report1 on diversity and flexibility found that (i) building managerial capability to implement flexibility, and (ii) enabling managers to access flexibility, are the two key strategies to bridging the flexibility policy/practice gap. What exactly does that mean for businesses wanting to invest in developing organisational and managerial capability? This note provides a summary of EEONA’s key findings, which were based on the survey responses of 48 HR/diversity practitioners representing nearly one quarter of a million employees (238,580) in best practice organisations.
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The level (policy) playing field
For best practice organisations, having a flexibility policy (which provides a statement of commitment to flexibility) and offering a range of flexible work practices is a given. As an example, the 48 companies surveyed claimed that they offered the following:
i. part-time work (100%);
ii. flexible start and finish times (89%);
iii. time-in-lieu (88%);
iv. job-share arrangements (81%);
v. tele-working (75%);
vi. career-breaks (72%);
vii. flexi-time (72%).
Was that enough to create a flexible work environment? Unfortunately not. Notwithstanding their flexibility policies and broad offerings the majority of respondents (81%) rated the effectiveness of their policies as average, or below average, and this means that the value of these policies is not being fully realised in terms of bottom line benefits. Why? Recent research Aequus Partners conducted in IAG found that workplace flexibility will improve organisational and personal outcomes only if it is implemented effectively.
The gap between flexibility policy and practice
The EEONA research found, positively, that the majority of respondents promote and encourage flexibility (71%), and that approximately two-thirds of managers are strongly supportive of flexibility and committed to implementation. These findings suggest that the hearts of best practice organisations are in the right place, and the development of a flexibility policy is not part of a smokescreen or veneer, but evinces a commitment to creating a “family friendly” workplace in times of economic growth and crisis.
The issue is not with the heart – it is with the hands. EEONA’s research shows that the practical implementation of flexibility is inconsistent (only 28% of respondents agreed that flexibility is implemented consistently across their organisation) and that managers struggle with implementation (only 35% of respondents agreed that managers have sufficient confidence to manage difficult implementation issues). Identifying the problem is one thing, but what is the change strategy that will resolve the implementation gap?
Bridging the implementation gap
In order to gain a deeper level of insight into the strategies to help bridge the flexibility policy/practice implementation gap, EEONA compared the responses of high performing organisations (in terms of flexibility), with low performing organisations (based on the organisation’s own self assessment). In this way, EEONA was able to distinguish five strategies, from a broad range of initiatives that are critical to effectively implementing flexibility:
a. Talking the talk: managers need to show a high level of commitment to flexibility, and strongly support flexible work practices.
b. Walking the talk: managers must be effective role models for flexibility.
c. Flexibility for everyone: organisations must provide strong support for managers using flexible work options, not just staff.
d. A great knowledge base: managers must have sufficient knowledge about how to manage flexible work options.
e. Practical skills: managers must have sufficient confidence to manage difficult implementation issues.
In summary, the results demonstrated the importance of building managerial capability to manage a flexible workforce. To a degree this should come as no surprise as managers are the gatekeepers of flexibility for staff. Rather, the benefit of the research is identifying that the key aspects of this training are enhancing (i) knowledge; (ii) confidence; and (iii) skills.
Apart from confirming the gap between flexibility policy and practice, EEONA concluded: “the gap between flexibility policy and practice is less about ‘in-principle’ support for flexibility and more about perceived gaps in managerial capabilities, managerial confidence and role modelling in relation to flexibility, and consistency of implementation”. In addition, the research highlighted the importance of job redesign to enable managers, as well as staff, to work flexibily. In summary, workplace flexibility offers a smart way for employers to address the downturn in the economy, and a focus on managerial training (both knowledge and skill-based) and job redesign are the critical investment points to generate that outcome.
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