Greater flexibility at work has been good for business

"I had reliable internet and was logging in and taking video calls and working on projects the whole time": Georgia Ford.
"I had reliable internet and was logging in and taking video calls and working on projects the whole time": Georgia Ford. Photo:

A group of major Australian employers that have introduced flexible working conditions for all staff, instead of a restricted few, are finding it good for engagement and morale and not bad for business.

New research from the University of Sydney looked at eight large employers including Unilever Australia and New Zealand, Westpac Group, Medibank, PwC Australia, Aurecon, Crown Resorts, Department of Environment, Land and Water and Planning in Victoria and NSW Transport Cluster.

The report from the university's Policy Lab and Women, Work and Leadership Research Group showed PwC's revenue growth had continued to be double-digit since it introduced the "All Roles Flex" policy. It was 10.8 per cent in 2017-2018 compared to 11 per cent in 2015-16 before the policy was implemented. The proportion of PwC employees working flexibly increased from 64 per cent in 2015 to 85 per cent in 2017.

"If you can be present for the things outside of work then you become more engaged at work": Rowenna Walker.
"If you can be present for the things outside of work then you become more engaged at work": Rowenna Walker. Photo:

The company's representation of female employees had increased from 46 per cent to 48 per cent within two years of introducing flexible working for all staff in 2015. The proportion of its employees reporting an improvement in work-life balance increased from 68 per cent in 2015 to 77 per cent in 2017.

Georgia Ford, 33, who provides staff training in digital technology and career development, took advantage of PwC's flexible work arrangements to travel around Australia for six months this year from April to October. She worked 15 hours a week across five days and spent the rest of the time travelling with her fiance in a 1986 camper van.

Ms Ford had planned to take six months' leave without pay, but her manager suggested the flexible working arrangement.

"To have that income coming in was a great help," Ms Ford said. "It meant we didn't have to use our savings as much.

"I had reliable internet and was logging in and taking video calls and working on projects the whole time.

"I was really grateful to have the opportunity to keep in touch with the team and be across what was happening and at the same time being able to travel around Australia and see everything I wanted to see."

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Since returning to work, Ms Ford said she takes advantage of flexible conditions to work from home when the need arises.

"If I need to work from home for a day or two I just let my team know that I won't be in the office," she said.

Aurecon said its clients had reported no negative impact on the service it provides since it introduced flexible working for its 2800 staff. Its proportion of female employees had increased from 26 per cent overall in 2016 to 32 per cent in 2018. The proportion of men taking primary parental leave increased from 26 per cent in 2015 to 32 per cent in 2018.

A lack of flexibility was one of the top five reasons people gave for leaving the company in 2015. But it was not mentioned as a reason for departure in more current exit surveys.

Rowenna Walker, who is a client director for transport at Aurecon has taken advantage of the company's flexible working policy. Ms Walker, who is married with two children aged 10 and 12, said the policy allows her to often work from home, to leave the office early or start later.

She said the flexible working hours allowed her to attend school assemblies, attend medical appointments with her children and watch sport or concerts. Her husband also works flexibly, allowing him to coach their son's soccer team.

"The benefits of flexibility are about being a present parent," she said. "If you can be present for the things outside of work then you become more engaged at work.

"If the cultural environment at work is supportive, you are much more relaxed and less stressed."

Study author Troy Roderick concluded that the mainstreaming of flexible work has contributed to a significant cultural shift in major organisations and among customers and suppliers.

He said consulting firms including PwC were concerned about the need to be available for clients "24/7" and had demonstrated this had not been compromised. Nor had its ability to grow revenue.

"We haven't created a utopia for flexible work but people are now on the journey of making it work," he said.

Rae Cooper Professor of Gender, Work and Employment Relations at the University of Sydney business school said flexible working conditions were typically made available to working mothers.

"This policy is taking a more holistic approach and saying it could be available for any reason and in different jobs," she said.

"That is potentially a game changer to keep people who need flexibility engaged so they are not making a choice between a good job and flexibility which is very important for building gender equality."

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