Flex talk, more than action

By David Donaldson

Thursday November 30, 2017

Transparent glass doors leading to an office where business meeting is taking place

Flexible work became important for Philip Saikaly after his wife was diagnosed with cancer last year.

“She had to take time off,” said the general manager at Sport and Recreation Victoria on Tuesday. But, “she ran out of sick leave, she was doing chemotherapy and had to go to work. And yet her supervisor, who was based in another state, would not provide that flexibility.”

It’s a reminder that for all the talk about attracting and retaining talent, flexible work at its core is about people fitting work in with their sometimes complicated lives.

“If one of my staff members ran out of sick leave because of a serious illness, [I’d say] ‘take time off … I know we provide you with support, you’ll return the favour when you’re well enough to do so’,” Saikaly remarked, in a discussion about putting flexible work into practice, arranged by the Victorian division of the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

“But we get stuck in your entitlements — 15 days sick leave and that’s all you’re getting — that’s not right, that’s not how life works.”

Thankfully his employer, the Department of Health and Human Services, has been supportive of him working flexibly, allowing him to take responsibility for things like the kids’ breakfast and school drop-off.

“I’m giving my staff the opportunity to think that way as well, and empower my managers to have that discussion with their staff,” Saikaly says.

“We have staff who work from home. We provide the technology, we set the boundaries, we set our expectations about work, which are negotiated. We try not to make them unrealistic.”

It depends where you work…

Yet almost a year out from the announcement that the Victorian Public Service would make all roles flex, the practice is yet to take off in many places.

“I haven’t seen a huge amount of implementation of that yet,” said Sally Hasler from the Department of Premier and Cabinet. “The majority of people are still working 9-5. There’s a little bit of part time that I’ve seen.

“I think the biggest challenge in government is around the method of working and the shift to focus on outcomes.”

While discussion often focuses on whether people working flexibly should be paid less and what reasons are adequate to be allowed to work from home, these questions tend to miss the point, said Hasler, who has written about starting her current job at 36 weeks pregnant.

“If you think about what someone’s job is, what they’re responsible for delivering on and whether they’re delivering on that job, [then questions like] how they do it, how long they’re working, how much they’re paid; I don’t think they’re relevant. I think the point is that they’re getting their job done … the shift to activity based work is a really good one.”

Be clear about the boundaries

Even at DHHS people are still getting used to the idea of flex as default, explains Saikaly.

“There’s probably still a bit of guilt for those who are working flexibly that they have to be available in non-work times,” he said.

The key is to be open and clear about expectations. Set the boundaries early so you don’t have to be available, he recommends — even down to when you’re happy to receive a text or phone call.

“You have to get down to that level of detail so that expectations are very clear. You don’t want to get to a point where after six months your staff member comes to you and says, ‘I’m not happy with this arrangement because you’re not working with me.'”

Flex creates new challenges with ensuring people are around at the right times for meetings, but these represent something to be managed, rather than an insurmountable barrier.

It’s important to acknowledge those challenges and provide managers with the extra time or resources they need for the extra workload of managing staff on flextime.

“My rule now is I just need a couple of days a week when everybody’s in,” says Michelle Delaire of the Taxi Services Commission.

“My rude awakening was when I, from a director role, took my first maternity leave. I came back and they said, ‘You can’t work part-time in a director role’, and I said, ‘Oh okay,’ thinking that was the answer. I ended up in a short term project role with the possibility of ending up with nothing.

“Eventually I got back into director roles and worked four days a week for many years. We had great, high-performing teams and great results.

“So it became really important to support people in my team and give them options.”

Many managers are worried about underperformance — what if an employee is simply slacking off at home? It’s all about trust, says Delaire.

“If you’ve got someone who’s not performing or you don’t trust them, it’s not going to matter whether they’re full time or part time, they’re not the right fit for that role,” she noted.

She added that “if you recruit grown-ups” who you can have open discussions with, there should be no risk in giving staff flexibility.

“I certainly have never, ever had a performance problem with any of my people who are working flexibly, and there are lots and lots of them.”

Breaking down the barriers

There are still many barriers to normalising flexible work.

You can have all the workplace policy you like, but if managers aren’t approving flex, it’s not going to become part of the culture.

One effective but relatively minor change is for organisations to make it mandatory for managers to report to the CEO when they turn down an application, said Adam Fennessy, former secretary at the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

This approach, first tried by Christine Nixon at Victoria Police, immediately led to a big increase in approvals.

Employers need to avoid micromanaging people working from home and trust their staff have the judgement to make it work. Dealing with kids can be difficult — especially if you need to speak to a client with them in the background — but people figure out strategies.

A change of mindset is needed, Saikaly thinks.

“The next frontier in all of this is that we’re not denying people the opportunity to progress their career because they’re working flexibly,” he said.

“That’s the mindset we still have — if you’re not here, you’re not working full time. We’re still not encouraging, particularly mums, to apply for promotions. We have to get to that point.”

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