Diversity of Thought Blog

Flexibility in the Workplace: Not Just a Women’s Issue

By Anya Roslan

Flexible working is no longer seen as just a gender equality issue – it is a hallmark of agile and productive workplaces.  The increased uptake of flexible working practices is considered a driver for productivity in both men and women, as well as a way to increase diversity and performance at top levels.  The widely-held assumption that it is an issue that impacts women most is challenged by the benefits it brings to businesses, and its calculated economic impact.

In July this year, one of the “Big Four” accounting firms, Ernst & Young [E&Y], published a report[1] that outlined the economic productivity potential if more organisations adopted flexible work policies. Ending with recommendations on how they could attract and retain more female talent, an enduring message was that women are at a disadvantage because taking on caring roles at home tends to disrupt their careers.

And theirs isn’t the only resource that talks about the importance of flexible work for women; Diversity Council Australia took to the topic in their Annual Diversity Debate[2], where a panel of business leaders, academics, and commentators discussed whether flexible working is the key to gender equality in the workplace. The debate concluded that flexible working is not THE key to gender equality, but it was accepted that women – particularly mothers – utilise flexible working policies more than men do[3], which is associated with pay and promotional penalties.

But flexible working policies don’t just benefit mothers or carers; they are designed to favour all types of employees. Per its definition in E&Y’s report, flexible working refers to changes in where, when, and how a person works that benefits both the individual and the organisation. In the current working world, there are many instances where both men and women can utilise flexible working arrangements. So despite the perception that flexible working is an initiative that focuses on helping female employees, it should be pursued as a business strategy both in terms of its potential to increase more diversity and in creating a more sustainable workplace for the future.

It is no secret that Australian businesses are not utilising the full spectrum of talent available to them.  Australia produces more female university graduates than men[4], but higher up the rungs of the corporate world, they are falling off the radar. A summary of the Australian Census of Women in Leadership[5] reveals a startling disparity; more than half of ASX 500 companies have no female executive key management personnel. While the number of women in these positions is slowly improving, it is predicted that based on the current progress, Australia will reach gender parity by 2300[6]. We certainly can’t wait that long.

If organisations create cultures where flexible work practices are utilised at all levels, we can reasonably expect more women to pursue higher positions. This is supported by the notion that they are currently being held back by long working hours and unfeasible commitment requirements[7].

The business case for this type of working arrangement is supported by other E&Y research[8] which concludes that women who are in flexible roles are the most productive members of the workforce, wasting less time at work than the rest of the working population.  E&Y calculate that this could save Australia up to $1.4 billion in wages. At the time of the report, 43.2% of women in the work-force were employed in part-time roles, compared to 13.5% of men, and data suggests that a better balance could yield dramatic economic potential.

It is important to note that flexibility is so much more than just part time work.  By definition, it is about being agile to adapt where, when and how work is done, in response to personal and organisational demands.  Expanding our perception of what flexible work can be, as well as who works this way could close this gender gap quite considerably.    Testament to the fact that this isn’t solely a women’s issue, a Workplace Gender Equality Agency [WGEA] paper[9] further elaborates on the benefits to men who take on flexible work options, citing improved work performance, ability to manage work overload, and reduced turnover of male employees.

So flexible working isn’t just about supporting women who are transitioning to or from carer roles, but also provides other advantages – fundamentally, it is about improving quality of work in a manner that works well for both businesses and employees.  It is not just about adjusting to employee needs, as the workplace is evolving and so is the nature of business. What’s needed to get results is constantly changing. In today’s world, many employees work across different time zones and interact at odd times, accommodating to a borderless place of work, thanks largely to advancements in technology and social change in how we communicate with one another.

Organisations need to prepare for the changing working environment.  Research by Deloitte (2013)[10] proposes that the workplace of the future will be less hung up on time as an indicator of productivity.  The notion that the best employees work the longest hours will become obsolete, suggesting that flexible work is a viable, if not a required option. Value will be placed on employees’ insight, their connections, and ability to collaborate. Employees who are exposed to more gender-diverse environments will build upon a wider network, and more varied perspectives. This can influence one’s openness to new ideas, and improve collaboration efforts, which are important to their development in the new working world.

The expansion of the workplace across international waters promises that it will continue to be increasingly virtual and global. This will have implications on attitudes to work, and how performance expectation will be managed. Instead of focusing on how much time or where a task is accomplished, employees will be empowered to focus on the quality of their work at a time and place that is conducive to their productivity. For example, long hours in the office will be traded in for when work suits an employee best and will allow them to be more focused and productive, while juggling commitments outside of work more effectively.

Organisations that accommodate to this evolving flexible workplace will allow men to achieve greater performance and engage with their lives outside of work, while encouraging more female participation in leadership. By helping to create an environment that helps employees reach their full potential, these organisations will attract and retain the best talent from a wider resource pool. Women who currently look to industries where more flexible work is available can begin to pursue careers that have traditionally been considered family-unfriendly due to their long hours[11]. The creation of a more diverse and empowered pool of employees will help organisations become more robust, agile, and better-shaped for success in the future.

From an employee’s standpoint, if all workers are to have some level of control over where, when and how they work, individual performance criteria become outcomes-based, opening up greater potential for merit-based promotion and pay. As more organisations get on board, flexible working can become normal, ensuring that both male and female workers are free to work in the way that best suits them and their roles, and abolishing the stigma and penalties related to flexible work.

Pic2013Aniya Roslan is a postgraduate psychology student, blogger, and three-year-old marketer. In 2014, she’ll be spending the bulk of her time examining the role of gender in the workplace.  http://anyaroseland.tumblr.com

[6] Fitzsimmons, Terrance W., Callan, Victor J. and Paulsen, Neil (2013) Gender disparity in the C-suite: do male and female CEOs differ in how they reached the top?. Leadership Quarterly, In Press : 1-22.