The Flexible Workplace Myth

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Imagine a company where staff are able to turn up and leave when they want. If their children are sick or if they just feel like it, the employees stay home and work. They understand their tasks and responsibilities; how, when and where they achieve it is up to them. If they have to have facetime with a client, and are unable to be there, then they find somebody else to do that for them.

Sounds like the sort of company that could only exist in one of those sickenly progressive, economically prosperous and ridiculously blonde and tall Scandinavian countries, doesn’t it?

But it turns out that the company in question is right here in Australia. Organisational psychology consulting firm Sales Acuity has a staff of 12, all of whom have kids. Most of them work part-time or are associates who work casually.

Victoria Chow, Managing Consultant of Sales Acuity, says that in the ten years since she and her husband started the company, flexible work has been a key to their success.

‘We’ve never really experienced any downsides and it is something that we try to foster because we know how hard it was for us with our own family,’ says Chow. ‘It’s just always worked and if it hadn’t worked we would have changed it. We’re proud of it.’

With changes introduced to the Fair Work Act at the beginning of this year, Sales Acuity may soon become less of an outlier. Under the amendments, mature and disabled workers and those with caring responsibilities, both male and female, have the right to request flexible work arrangements.

It’s great for everyone. Except perhaps those employees who have the temerity to exercise their rights and actually ask for flexible conditions.

Research suggests that many employees who request flexible work arrangements may face what Joan C Williams from the University of California calls ‘flexible stigma’.

As Williams told the New York Times, ‘Many times these policies are on the books, but informally everyone knows you are penalised for using them.’

Employees — mostly women — who dare to exercise their legal rights to request flexible employment conditions such as working part-time, working from home on some days or having non-standard start and finishing times can find themselves ‘restructured’ into unemployment or shuffled off to the mummy (or occasionally daddy) track which equates to unsatisfying work or even career suicide.

Add to this that your colleagues may end up hating you. A 2012 report from British workplace information firm Croner, found that flexible working conditions fueled ‘workplace conflict’ with other employees resenting those who are able to work part-time or leave the office early.

Is it any wonder that the 2012 Australian Work Life Index found that only 43 per cent of eligible women and a paltry 19.8 per cent of men made a flexibility request?

The latest edition of the Journal of Social Issues suggests that men seeking flexible work arrangements suffer even greater stigma than women because caregiving responsibilities challenges the breadwinning ideal, making the employee seem less of a man.

When it comes to equality, social justice and quality of life, providing flexible work options to employees — without the negative consequences — is a no-brainer. The harsh reality of business, however, is that corporations’ primary responsibility is not to the common good, but to maximise shareholder profits.

But to view flexible work options and good business as mutually exclusive is antiquated and shortsighted. Clinging to full-time work as the norm for every employee and doubting the commitment of anyone with caring responsibilities is not only socially irresponsible — it’s also bad business.

Given that flexible working is now enshrined in law and Australia’s aging population will increase the caring responsibilities of employees, flexible working conditions are here to stay. Companies that deny this reality and maintain the outdated business practices of the last Century will become dinosaurs.

Bums on seats is no longer the best measure for a productive workforce – especially since said bums can spend all day dutifully sitting in their cubical but subversively pimping their Facebook profile.

If companies start to value the quality of employees’ output rather than the quantity of their input, then flexible working arrangements become an opportunity rather than a cost. And those who choose to exercise their legal rights at ask for flexible work conditions are less likely to be stigmatised.

Of course not every industry and job type can be fully flexible. But for many workers, particularly in Australia with our high proportion of information workers, flexible working conditions is a realistic option.

As Victoria Chow puts it, ‘We don’t ever lose any staff. Nobody leaves. Staff just stay with us because it suits them and they are really happy.’

the article first appeared on Daily Life

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