What is flexibility & why does it matter?
Modern workplace culture expectations have been strong drivers for flexible working for some time, but the arrival of the pandemic in early 2020 has accelerated the transition for many. So, how does flexibility work in practice, what are the benefits and challenges, what is its impact on equity, what is the business case for change and what are some of the types of flexible working?
This article was written and compiled as part of a set that draws on four flexibility toolkits developed by the Champions of Change Architecture Group, with the aim of contributing to flexible work cultures within the wider architecture profession.
Developing and implementing comprehensive flexibility policies was at the core of the Champions of Change Architecture Group’s initial program of activity. After extensive work, all practices have All Roles Flex policies in place, and the focus is now on embedding flexibility into the cultures and everyday habits of the workplace. To support this transition the Champion Action Groups developed a suite of toolkits. The Champions and Implementation Leaders are now keen to share the knowledge assembled and the processes developed with the wider architectural profession.
There is enormous interest in flexible work within architecture and the built environment professions, from both practice and personal perspectives. For example, in 2020, in the first year of the pandemic, 96% of respondents to the Parlour Work and Wellbeing survey thought that the pandemic presented an opportunity for permanent improvements to workplaces and work cultures – and flexibility was identified as a key part of this.
So, what is flexibility and why does it matter?
Flexible work involves variation in where work is done, when work is done, and the tools that are used to enable work to be done, or a combination of these factors. Flexible work includes informal flex and formal flex, which is codified in an employment contract (more information about these options is provided below).
Flexibility works both ways. At their best, flexible workplaces enable employers and employees to work together to resiliently manage the swings-and-roundabouts of life and business.
At the individual level, flexibility helps people to balance work commitments with external interests and demands, enabling them to make arrangements about working conditions that suit their circumstances. This supports a balanced, healthy approach to life – and recognises that everyone has complex and differing needs. Flexibility enables everyone to be meaningfully involved with the care-taking of their families, to look after their own health and personal wellbeing, to better fulfil diverse commitments and to enjoy other pursuits. This, in turn, can increase job satisfaction.
Workplace advantages include an increased sense of agency for employees in terms of their schedule and work environment. This autonomy can lead to increased productivity, as employees are able to arrange their days and workspaces to avoid distractions. This was demonstrated during the pandemic, when many employees also experienced higher levels of productivity while working at home (when adequately supported with resources and suitably accommodated).
From a practice perspective, flexible work can help directors and principals improve productivity and efficiencies, enabling the practice to respond quickly to changes in projects and workloads. Flexibility helps to develop an adaptable workforce, to reduce turnover and creates a competitive advantage when attracting, hiring and retaining the best and brightest.
New approaches to working flexibly provide an opportunity to reimagine and to think creatively about how we can work differently while maintaining an operational rhythm that supports everyone.
COVID-19 – THE GAMECHANGER
Fair Work Australia legislation and modern workplace culture expectations have been strong drivers for flexible working for some time, but the arrival of the pandemic in early 2020 changed the way we work across the globe. The impact of the pandemic, mandated lockdowns and social distancing demanded a rapid response from employers, which quickly implemented flexible working arrangements to maintain regular workflow. It was a giant workplace culture experiment that accelerated the transition process for many.
A large number of architectural practices already had flexible ways of working in place, many Champions of Change practices were well on the way to incorporating an All Roles Flex model, while others had a lot of catching up to do. It has become clear that a return to the office after periods of lockdown is rarely a return to the status quo. For many practices, ‘the new normal’ necessitates the establishment of a flexible work policy to retain and attract the best talent – it is now perceived as a necessity, not an extra benefit or value-add.
As with many other workplace shifts, there are challenges and opportunities inherent in the transition. Leadership from the top is essential to developing a culture of flexibility within a workplace.
THE CASE FOR FLEXIBILITY
The rationale for flexible work has (at least) three aspects – supporting equity, improving business performance and, at a minimum, meeting employer obligations under the Fair Work Act.
Improving business performance
Building a culture of flexible working is a strategic commercial decision to maximise the productivity, value and retention of excellent employees. Offering flexibility ensures practices hire and retain the best and brightest staff in a highly competitive market. Flexibility is a mutually beneficial arrangement that supports the health and happiness of employees, enabled to do their best work, and the commercial viability of a practice.
In architecture, as in many professions, there is a clear gendered pattern whereby women are much more likely than men to work part-time or use traditional flexible conditions. This pattern has had far-reaching adverse effects on women in the profession, contributing to stunted career progression, under-representation in leadership roles, gender-based pay inequity and, in some case, a two-tier system where part-time and flexible workers are seen as less committed.
Normalising and valuing flexible work, and encouraging people of all genders to take up the option, creates fairer, more equitable workplaces for all.
Fulfilling employer obligations
The Fair Work Act 2009 provides employees with the right to request flexible working conditions, provided they have been employed for 12 months and they fall into one of a number of categories, most of which relate to caring responsibilities, health, ability, age and domestic violence. The Fair Work Ombudsman notes that best practice employers should go beyond their minimum legal obligations and let all employees request flexible work arrangements, giving their employees flexibility where possible to help them balance their work and personal lives. (For more on eligibility and the recommended process, see below.)
MEETING THE CHALLENGES
Flexible work can also bring challenges, particularly in the early stages of implementation when everyone is still adjusting. Recognising and anticipating these challenges is an important part of developing a positive flexible work culture. These must be navigated by individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole.
Creating a culture of flexible working often requires practices to overcome entrenched ideas around what a good employee looks like and what a healthy, productive work culture feels like. Recognising and planning for the challenges outlined below will help this process.
Many people worry that working flexibly (including part time) signals that they are not serious about careers or career progression. Unfortunately, those fears can be founded in reality – sometimes leadership positions within projects are withheld from people working flexibly.
Being a leader within a complex project team does require a lot from individuals – and different roles can accommodate different types of flexibility. Nonetheless, smart flexible working should support career progression and project leadership.
Valuing productivity over presenteeism
Traditional architecture office work cultures often value hard work, dedication and personal sacrifice over specific, measurable production or outcomes. There are many offices in which the performance of working hard for long hours seems to be the key to success regardless of the quality and quantity of what is actually produced. The reality is that efficient, effective smart-work is much more valuable. In order to get the full benefits of flexible working, we have to get better at measuring the value of employees by the quality of what they produce and not by the amount of time they spend in the office or demonstrating ‘hard work’.
Considering accessibility and servicing client needs
Architectural work often involves working closely with large teams of people both inside and outside the office. Availability for meaningful conversations and face time with teams, clients, consultants and global colleagues must be be integrated into processes when planning for flexibility.
Managing work life blur
Some people worry that working flexibly means dissolving boundaries between work life and personal life. This is indeed a risk. The sense of work life balance can become blurred and employees may feel the loss of separation of private space and workspace. This can have negative impacts for those who find it difficult to switch off from work after business hours. It is important to set up processes and practise behaviours that support a meaningful separation between work and home. Being clear about boundaries, availability and expectations is key.
Maintaining connection and communication
People working flexibly may experience a loss of connection from co-workers. This sense of connection is important to practice culture – the little interactions and sparks of communication can be hard to capture through the virtual world and impromptu mentoring and collaboration may be disrupted. Architectural work is generally very collaborative, and it often helps to have everyone in the same location. However, changes in technology mean that working remotely can be a highly viable and productive option. It is important to explore different ways to maintain connection and communication, and to support incidental encounters. Different strategies and approaches are likely to prove successful for different teams and individuals.
FLEXIBLE WORKING ARRANGEMENTS
There are many ways of working flexibly. These include flexible working arrangements that are reflected contractually and informal cultural practices that happen outside of contracts and accommodate the swings and roundabouts of daily life. It’s up to each person to determine if the flexibility they require is structural or incidental. It’s up to all of us – practices and individuals – to promote cultures that supports both kinds of flexibility.
All Roles Flex is one model that embraces flexibility as a core principle within the workplace.
All Roles Flex
Developed by the Champions of Change Coalition, All Roles Flex is an approach where flexibility is the starting point for how work happens, rather than an alternative arrangement. Flexibility is available in every job, for any reason. For this to be effective, the culture and systems of the practice must support flexible work in general, leaders must walk the talk, and all requests are supported unless there is a significant negative business impact that can be explained.
To request a flexible way of working, an employee outlines the type of flexibility that best suits their needs and prepares a request for consideration. This is then the subject of negotiation and may lead to an individual flexibility agreement. All Roles Flex does not mean that all employees automatically work flexibly without negotiated agreements. It also doesn’t mean that every employee can have everything they want in terms of flexible work, all the time.
Aspects of flexible working
When exploring flexible working it is useful for leaders, managers and employees to all understand the wide range of options. Some may be included in formal agreements; others may be part of a broader culture of flexible work. Practices may elect to implement different aspects over time – refer to the Flexible Working Matrix for an outline of how this could occur.
See How to Create an Effective Flex Policy for further practical advice and resources.
Time is a central issue in flexible working – when you start, finish and for how long.
Work hours and core hours
Work hours refer to the window in which work can be done (for example, 7am to 7pm). Core hours are the period within that spectrum in which everyone is expected to be in the office (for example, 10am to 4pm). Allowing a team to slide their contracted work-sessions around that core time can help accommodate everyone’s schedules. All key meetings should be scheduled within core time wherever possible.
Managing expectations and availability
Phone calls, emails and texts outside of regular working hours are often part of work life. Ideally, each team would have an early conversation about how available team members want to be when they’re not in the office and when it’s okay to break a rule. Once this understanding is in place, it is up to each individual to manage the expectations of their team.
More than contracted hours
Architecture involves long hours from time to time. While this may be appropriate in short bursts, it is important to advocate for a culture that does not make a habit of it. Employees should have choice and control over where and how they work outside normal hours. Coming in early to minimise working late and taking work home are viable options to help teams manage heavy workloads when they happen. It is important that leaders ensure their teams are aware of the potential to burn out due to too many long days, and advise them to openly discuss strategies to prevent this within the team and with their leader.
Restorative, uninterrupted time outside the office makes everyone more productive when they are back in the office. All staff with a permanent contract are entitled to standard leave, and there are other types of leave available to those that may need them.
Dedicated leave for taking care of dependants is built into contract and work protections through the Fair Work Act. Employees can always use this to take care of loved ones. Carers leave generally comes from the same pool of days of sick leave. If employees go above this allotment, they can then use annual leave or leave without pay.
Leave without pay (LWOP)
LWOP can be used in any situation where employees feel they need to take time off without using annual leave. Practices should provide guidance to employees on when LWOP can be used.
Practices may consider providing additional paid leave to employees to encourage study and professional development. It’s important to provide guidance to employees on accessing this.
A practice’s parental leave culture and policy should be described separately.
HEALTH AND WELLBEING
Everybody is different and, in turn, every body is different. You can only do your best work when you’re as healthy as you can be – both mentally and physically.
Extended leave for recovery
Practices should consider how they will respond to an employee recovering from a serious injury or illness. Best practice involves developing a plan with employees that promotes recovery, the job of the employee and the interests of both the employee and the practice.
Mental health is every bit as important as physical health. Consider providing additional practice-wide leave days to cover mental health and wellbeing initiatives such as R U OK day.
Provide guidance about when medical appointments can occur during work hours. We suggest that doctors’ appointments should occur whenever needed and employees should be able to make up the time if they prefer to do this rather than using other types of leave.
TRAINING AND EDUCATION
It’s important to encourage and foster a culture of lifelong learning and teaching. This supports everyone to have rich intellectual lives, the most advanced skills, to be well informed, and free to deepen and broaden their platform as professionals. All of the below are accommodated through a culture of flexible working.
Learning and upskilling
If an employee is taking classes, doing a degree or upskilling in any way that relates to their role or wellbeing, encourage this and work with them to amend or tailor their flexible working arrangements.
Teaching can be a great complement to professional practice, but it can also be a big time commitment. Consider supporting your employees in this through a discussion of the types of flexible working arrangements that could accommodate this commitment.
Attending conferences and other events
Conferences and events can be great learning opportunities and staff should be generally supported to attend relevant conferences. Consider making financial support available, depending on budgets and relevance to the office’s initiatives.
Encourage everyone eligible to become registered. Consider providing inhouse training or financial support to your employees to offset the cost of courses, as well as study leave.
Other types of flex
- Job sharing – One full-time job split between employees who agree the hours and responsibilities between them.
- School holiday flexibility – Additional leave during the school holidays.
- Annual hours of work – Contracted hours of work are calculated annually allowing for flexibility over the year.
- Rostered days off– Extending hours of work on a typical day to accumulate time for a day off in any given period
- Reduced hours of work – this may be for a fixed period or on a permanent basis.
- Time in lieu – Replacing work in addition to contracted hours with time off work at a later date.
- Transition hours – Reduced hours of work during a transitional period (for example, returning from a career break or major operation).
- Part year work – Reduced hours of work allowing for extended leave for certain months of the year.
- Alternating location – For those practices with satellite offices, flexibility in the office location.
- Sabbatical / career break– Employees are allowed to take an extended period of time off, either paid or unpaid.
The Fair Work Act 2009 provides many employees in the national workplace relations system with a legal right to request flexible working arrangements. For information about specific eligibility and the recommended process, see Fair Work advice on Flexible Working Arrangements.
For more information on adopting flexible working, see How to Create an Effective Flex Policy for your Practice, Flexible Work Resources and the three practice case studies on adopting flexibility policies (BVN, COX Architecture and Woods Bagot).
This article was written and compiled by Susie Ashworth and Justine Clark as part of a set that draws on the four flexibility toolkits, created by the Champions of Change Architecture Group. Material was also drawn from Parlour’s Guide to Equitable Practice on Flexibility. Valuable assistance was given by Monica Edwards and Susanne Jensen of the Champions of Change Architecture Group Advocacy and Comms Focus Group.
Contributors to the CoC toolkits include Joe Agius (COX), John Prentice (Woods Bagot), Brian Clohessy (BVN), Susanne Jensen (COX), Jessica Hartany (Bates Smart), Thihoa Gill (Grimshaw), David Tordoff (Hayball), Sandeep Amin (at the time DesignInc), Chi Melhem (at the time Tzannes), Gemma MacDonald (DKO), Nicole Allen (Grimshaw), Karyn Dodman (Tzannes), Tara Keast (DesignInc), Natalie Lane-Rose (at the time Bates Smart), Karen Le Provost (PTW), Fiona Martin (Fiona Martin Consulting) and Monica Edwards (SJB).
Images courtesy of BVN, Woods Bagot and COX Architecture.