Is flexible work the way of the future?

Thursday 11th June 2020 Justin Cleveland

“We’re a flexible workplace,” is something so ubiquitous in job advertisements that it’s really only notable when it’s missing. The last few months have pushed us into a forced flexibility. UniSA’s HR management experts, Professor Carol Kulik and Dr Ruchi Sinha, say this ubiquity may be the way of the future.

“COVID-19 19 forced people to work from home under the worst possible conditions – it was done in a rush, it was done across the board, and in some cases, it was done without the right supports such as IT, or ergonomics,” says Sinha.

Outside of the challenges of setup (my dining table is comfortable for a meal, not for an eight-hour workday) and needing to look after children, Sinha says the pandemic experiment showed that there can be a different, successful way of working. “Yet, even under these sub-optimal conditions, the pandemic showed that flexibility can work, with many people thriving in their safe, home-bound conditions.

“Of course, not everyone loved it, but the work did get done, and employees did show that working from home is not only possible, but also productive.”

Measuring productivity and success is, of course, a sliding scale. Now that we’ve proved that people can work not just from home but from anywhere, does that mean we’ll see it as a viable option in the future? Sinha isn’t sure. “Now, as workplaces return to some semblance of normal, people are asking – ‘what will happen to workplace flexibility?’ – and with such large-scale evidence that flexibility doesn’t diminish productivity, businesses cannot afford to turn a blind eye and just return to normal.

“Beyond COVID-19, we need a next normal that will not only embrace lessons from the lockdown, but also encourage flexible work.”

Will flexibility be the norm in the future?

Atlassian’s Dom Price wrote, in a piece for inc.com back in 2017, that where people work is significantly less important than the work their being asked to do. “Instead of fixating on location, companies are better off obsessing over engagement and empowerment. Investing in culture pays off when your entire company sits in one building, when you're collaborating across multiple offices, and (inevitably) when some of your staff works from home.”

Incorporating tools like video conferencing, messaging apps, and collaboration tools like document sharing keeps everyone connected and accountable while providing the flexibility to find creative solutions to problems.

UniSA’s Carol Kulik says that, while 80% of Australian businesses offer scope for flexible work practices, less than 20% of them actually embrace the practice. That’s something that will need to change in the future.

“No doubt we’re going to need give-and-take when it comes to flexible working arrangements – both for employers and employees,” she says.

Management needs to be prepared to support remote staff

The biggest barrier to embracing remote work, say the UniSA research team, is management. “Managers need to recognise that they are often the biggest barriers to negotiating flexible work, simply because they aren’t well-prepared to motivate or manage staff remotely. They’re also concerned about productivity from home, so all in all, it’s easier for them to say no to flexibility, than it is to say yes.”

The companies that take this time to re-evaluate their relationship to the office are likely to be leaps and bounds ahead of their competition. “By crafting roles and performance criterion effectively, these organisations are more likely to retain their talent, attract new talent and thrive,” said Kulik.

“It’s time to stop paying lip service to flexible workplace policies. It’s time to see change.”

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