How to Make Flexibility Work for your Practice

12 October 2018

Think flexible working will hurt your bottom line? A recent study found flexible workers were more, not less productive than their peers. So how can you make it work in your practice? Merilyn Speiser from Catalina Consultants looks at the issues.

Flexibility is no longer a nice to have; it’s the law. But, more than that, it actually helps enable more engaged, more productive workers who can help you achieve your business goals. So how do you build the benefits of flexible working into your workplace? Read on to find out.

The evolution of flexible working

There was a time when flexible working was thought to be the sole domain of the new mother returning to work after maternity leave. Those days are long behind us. The Fair Work Act 2009 gives employees the right to request flexible working arrangements on a number of grounds, including:

  • If they’re a carer under the Carer Recognition Act 2010
  • If they’re the parent of school-aged children
  • If they’re 55 or over
  • If they have a disability
  • If they are – or someone they care for is – experiencing domestic violence.

Many Awards and enterprise agreements also provide for flexible work for employees and businesses they cover, so you’ll need to take these into account too. But beyond the strict legal requirements, there are loads of benefits to both employers and employees when businesses are more flexible about how people can work. Why on earth would any employer disrupt their business in that way voluntarily?

Why flexibility? The economic benefits of flexible working

It’s true that a lot of employers struggle to come to terms with how on earth they can run their business with a flexible workforce. It’s also true that flexibility works better in some work environments than in others. However, our experience shows that it can and does work in most instances.

And we’re not alone in this belief. In fact, a recent study on flexible working in a Fortune 500 company found that flexible workers achieved more, were sick less often, worked longer hours and were much happier in their roles than their peers.

After all, not every employee who is given the chance to work flexibly will opt for it. But for those who do, it can be the difference between having a highly engaged and productive worker and one just going through the motions.

Long-term vs short-term flexible work

You should also remember that a lot of flexible working arrangements are only temporary, supporting an employee to work through a short-term issue rather than being a long-term fix. There are generally two types of flexible working arrangement:

  • Regular. Where you enter into a formal, ongoing arrangement that lets an employee change their working hours, work from home or take some other ongoing action; and
  • Periodic. Where you allow an employee to work flexibly on an ‘as needs’ basis. For instance, if they need to balance their work with health, family or learning responsibilities for a period of time.

How to introduce flexible working arrangements

If you’re wondering specifically how you can take advantage of flexible working, here’s some of the techniques we’re seeing businesses use to good effect:

  • Alternate start and finish times. This can be a great tool if someone has a before- or after-work commitment, or if they want to use their time more efficiently by beating the peak hour traffic. For instance, if someone works a 7.5-hour day, and they start at 7.30am, with a half hour lunch break they could be done at 3.30pm. Alternatively, by starting at 10.30am, they could still put in the same hours if they finish at 6.30pm.
  • Compressed working week. Working a full week’s hours over four days instead of five can give someone a day off every week while they still make the same contribution. Using the same 7.5-hour day as our standard, someone could work from 8am to 5.45pm four days a week and they would still be doing the same hours as a person working 9am to 5pm across five.
  • Job sharing. By having two part-time workers perform the one full-time role, you can still get the job done.
  • Working from home. So long as someone’s home is set up to complete the tasks they need to perform, avoiding the daily commute can give them back hours in their day.
  • Alternating workplaces. This can be a good temporary arrangement. If you have more than one workplace, you could let an employee work from one closer to where they need to be, if they’re looking after a family member.
  • Reduced hours. Letting someone work, say, six hours instead of seven and a half could give them the chance to drop the kids at school.
  • Purchasing annual leave. You may be able to provide someone with the flexibility they need by giving them the opportunity to reduce their salary in exchange for more annual leave.

We’re seeing a lot of businesses we work with introducing the concept of ‘all roles flex’. That doesn’t mean that every role in the business is necessarily seen as flexible, but that every employee has the option to request a flexible working arrangement, and that the way in which each role flexes might be different.

The key: being flexible yourself

Finally, it’s worth remembering that when it comes to flexible working there are no hard and fast rules. What works for your workplace – and for individual roles within your workplace – will depend on your own operational requirements, as well as the nature of your workforce and the work you do.

Some employers find that it’s best to keep the number of staff working flexibly to no more than 20%, so they are able to maintain a critical mass on any given day. They have found that if flex is offered to everyone and employees all flex on the same day, it can change the energy within the office, sometimes to its detriment. Like all things, it’s a bit of trial and error to get it working right for each practice. Maintaining good communication and balance is key to making it work for everyone.

That said, we’d encourage you to challenge yourself. The next time an employee asks for a flexible working arrangement, don’t immediately say no. Instead, think about how you can make it work. The result could be a happier employee, better productivity and a boost to your bottom line.

Merilyn Speiser is Principal Consultant at Catalina Consultants. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the Catalina Consulting blog, and is republished here with permission.