Flexibility is critical – but are bosses ready to step up?

2020 is over, but the pandemic continues to affect every aspect of our working lives. Aside from cracking jokes about ‘2020 part 2’, it feels like there’s not a lot we can do. The Great Covid Career Reset, Women’s Agenda’s careers report, delivered some stats that confirmed the reality of how many of us felt. It was a bit of a nothing year. 35% of respondents felt like it was a ‘lost year’ for their careers, while 77% have had to adjust their expectations.

On the up side, we’ve also been given the time and space to realise what’s important when it comes to our careers. We’ve got stronger boundaries for what we’re willing to put up with at work. 80% of respondents are having a serious rethink about what actually matters. 75% say flexible work is now more important. For 76% of respondents, that means the ability to work from home. But what else does ‘flexible work’ mean to most people? And what will bosses actually be able to offer? As we settle in to a Covid-normal (and soon hopefully normal-normal) world, let’s take a look at how that flexibility priority might play out.

Flexibility starts from the top

Individuals and their line managers may know the benefits – for productivity and for staff wellbeing – of flexible work. But they can’t make it happen if it’s against the rules. While there may be some existing capacity to make adjustments, real change in conditions and options has to come from the top. That means the policy setters: the board and executive management of the organisation.

There’s some good news on that front. Surveys of board members of large companies from around the world indicate that ‘talent risk’ and the demand for non-traditional working conditions are emerging as top priorities for boards. The risk of IT infrastructure breaking down is seen as less likely and less urgent than in the past. It’s possible that some organisations will rebalance and say, “OK, it’s risky to let people work remotely because connections might fail, but it’s riskier to not give people the option at all.” Other business risks of remote work have also been downgraded as real data on likelihood and impact come in. In the words of one report, “those who said ‘it will never work’ have had an opportunity to now see it work.”

They’re also taking note of the link between innovation and disruption, and more flexible working conditions. A Governance Institute of Australia report mentioned that “The risks of talent retention and disruption perhaps go hand in hand: innovative working practices may well attract talent to a different employer. (…) Even prior to the onset of COVID-19, which prompted a fast-paced transition to working remotely, flexible and alternative working practices were becoming attractive to the workforce as a whole as employees looked to balance working life with commitments outside work.” What this means is that competing for talent by offering alternative work arrangements was already a thing before Covid – and it’s only going to get bigger.

What’s going to be available

‘Flexible work’ and ‘alternative working arrangements’ have lots of different permutations. The first thing that comes to mind for many people is the ability to work remotely, whether that’s from home, from a satellite office, or on the road. For the Women’s Agenda survey respondents, 76% say the ability to work from home is more important than ever.

Flexible schedules are also here to stay. This can be regular hours outside the standard 9 to 5, or being able to move hours to suit other commitments. One of the most common options is the ability to balance total hours across a week or a month. This can mean, for example, working an extra half hour a week and taking an RDO each month, or fitting 40 hours into four days instead of five (compressed work weeks). Even shift workers can access these benefits, with self-managed shift work apps and software helping frontline employees to select, adjust and swap shifts without manager approval (aka self-scheduling). These types of arrangements are popular with those trying to prioritise family commitments, like many of the respondents to the Women’s Agenda survey. But they’re also valuable for other groups, from elite athletes to those with disabilities and medical conditions. In other words, it’s not just a minority ‘women’s issue’. It’s for everyone.

Some workplaces will also shift further towards measuring productivity and output, not hours. Especially for knowledge workers, the pandemic has reinforced how little sense it makes to link time and output. However, this requires a more comprehensive and nuanced overhaul of corporate culture to engender trust and accountability. It’s also hard for some organisations to replace the simplicity of standard hours, with the complex custom success metrics.

What’s next?

We’ve got the experts’ theories, and we’re beginning to get the stats: changes in the way we work are not just possible, but essential. So how do we make it all happen? Check out The Great Covid Career Reset for more local insight on what will be necessary – especially that leadership factor. And don’t forget to subscribe for your free daily and weekly doses of future-proof career inspo.

To chat about your next career move, get in touch with a Course Consultant on 1300 738 955.