Flexible Working: It's more than just having a policy in place

Thursday 23rd November 2017

Flexible work

Professor Julie Cogin is an advocate for effective flexible workplace initiatives and a trailblazer for women in the workplace. In 2016, she was named as one of Australia’s women of influence in the category of diversity. Speaking at yesterday's Women in Super boardroom lunch in Sydney, hosted by MFS Investors, she shared her latest research on the impact that flexible workplaces can have on organisational performance.

Interested to know more, Industry Moves caught up with Julie who told us how Australian workplaces compare on a global scale, shared the inspiration behind her career path and passed on some advice to ensure that time spent outside of work hours is rewarding.

Julie Cogin

Q&A with Julie Cogin

Can you tell us about the most interesting finding from your latest research?

The findings empirically provide the business case for firms to invest in work-life support initiatives. There is a wide body of existing research showing flexible work practices enhance job satisfaction and other employee attitudes, however we were not able to find any studies that provide evidence of a causal link between work-life support practices and organisational outcomes such as financial performance and customer satisfaction. By providing this business case, we hope that firms will formulate and implement work-family policies in a way that contributes to business results.

While many organisations have flexible work policies in place, many employees don't take advantage of the opportunity. What did you find was the main reason for this?

The problem is that while family-friendly policies can help people manage multiple work and personal responsibilities, the availability of initiatives alone does not address fundamental aspects of a company, or parts of it, which can inhibit staff at all levels from successfully balancing career and family. Irrespective of whether work-life support practices are progressive or not, they do not account for an organisational culture that can impede staff from using the options available. I have observed many cases where employees who take advantage of such policy options, thus visibly demonstrating an interest in family and a personal life, face negative judgments regarding their lack of commitment to a team, the customer experience or their employer. I have also spoken to women who are dissuaded from utilising such schemes for fear of a stigma associated with having carer responsibilities.

In other words, having the right policy is meaningless, the culture the policy exists in is more important.

You’ve mentioned the “subtle behaviours [that] reduce the effectiveness of family-friendly programs” in the workplace. Can you tell us more about this?

Apart from the most obvious characteristics around participation rates of women in senior ranks, equity in compensation, and advancement of primary carers, other subtler behaviours reduce the effectiveness of family-friendly programs. For example, informal norms that international experience is a requirement to get ahead, after hours or late in the day meetings are reasonable, and allocation of substantial work late on Friday for a Monday morning return sends signals about what the organisation regards as important. 24/7 connectivity by senior leaders can also unintentionally send a message that employees should be involved in work matters outside normal hours.

"Having the right policy is meaningless, the culture the policy exists in is more important." - Julie Cogin

With your research spanning 27 different countries, how did Australia rate in terms of offering flexible workplace options?

Australia rates quiet well, though we have a lot more work to do in terms of how Australian businesses view flexible work practices. In Australia, these initiatives are often seen to be for women with children, when in fact there are now double the numbers of dual career couples with children then there was 10 years ago. There are also more single parent households and many employees with elder care obligations and this will increase as our population ages and lives longer. The assumptions should shift towards men and women have interests outside work and all staff will need to adjust the time they spend doing paid and unpaid work at various stages of their lives.

For Australian companies, my advice is to evaluate the success of work-life support practices by disentangling policy availability from take-up and the effects on talent attraction and retention.

You’re a trailblazer for women in the academic space and an influential woman in your efforts to improve gender diversity in the workplace. What, or who, has been the inspiration for your career path?

Thank you. There are many women and men seeking to promote gender equity in the workplace and I am only one voice!

There are 100s of people who have inspired me, including a generation of women before me that worked to make women’s unequal participation or restriction to participate in society known and unacceptable. I'm influenced by my mother, who made a having a career and family look easy, business leaders that insist on equal representation of men and women at senior levels and exceptional Chairs of ASX listed companies, such as Mark Johnson, who understand and action the benefits of gender diversity.

Flexible working

Over your career, what have been the biggest cultural shifts that you have experienced when it comes to workplace diversity and where do we need to focus our attention now and into the future?

The biggest cultural shift is that our workplaces look different comprising a wide range of people from various backgrounds. Diversity is no longer a male / female, black / white, young / old issue. It is much more complicated and interesting than that and our awareness of this has grown.

For all our diversity, this is not represented in leadership in our institutions, including parliament, boards, enterprise, universities or even in the honours lists around Australia Day. The focus for the future needs to be realising the potential of a diverse body of talent that can bring fresh ideas, perspectives and views to work. The challenge that diversity poses, therefore, is enabling leaders and managers to capitalise on the mixture of genders, cultural backgrounds, ages and lifestyles to respond to business opportunities more rapidly and creatively.

"The focus for the future needs to be realising the potential of a diverse body of talent that can bring fresh ideas, perspectives and views to work." - Julie Cogin

What’s the best piece of advice that you have received that has influenced you in some way?

Outsource! Spend as much of your precious time outside work with people you care about, doing things you like to do and give as much cleaning, and for me cooking and washing, to other people who are running their own small business.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I don’t always get it right and do take work home. However, I have parameters in place and take a lot of care not to create unintentional expectations of others.

…and what tips would you offer to someone who was struggling to find this balance?

I still struggle, especially when urgent matters arise. I learnt the hard way, many years ago, that difficulties arose when I attempted to bring work into family time, which was compounded as I occasionally worked from home. I remember trying to quickly answer an email or two on my Blackberry when playing with the kids or helping them with homework. It was the role ambiguity that caused the struggle. Humphrey Armstrong, a very wise person, suggested I create non-interrupted time that the family could count on and I was not able to be contacted as well as dedicated time at home, when my family knew I had to work. It made a big difference.

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