Flexible working: innovations and issues


It is increasingly recognised that flexible workers are happier, healthier and more productive. Yet many employees still have trouble accessing flexible work arrangements, or progressing in their careers whilst working flexibly.

Over the past year, we have held conversations with almost 300 public service managers in four states about how they enable employees to work flexibly, when it works, and why sometimes it doesn’t. Building on our previous research, we found many leading practices, but also a need for more support and guidance.

“Most managers expressed a need for more guidance around how to motivate and monitor employees working flexibly, particularly those working from home.”

Public service managers proved to be an innovative group. For example, when faced with a cyclical, regular increase in workload, some managers negotiated with their part-time staff to work full-time for the busiest periods of the year. Team members were happy to do this within a relationship of reciprocity.

Others had managed to turn a difficult situation into a positive. One of the recurring issues in the 40 focus groups we conducted was that when full-time staff became part-time, managers lost the ‘left-over’ part of the position. Some managers had taken the 0.4 or 0.2 remainders and created a new position, which was used to provide another staff member with an acting opportunity, or to ‘float’ across the workgroup, undertaking work as needed.

Many managers were also strategic. When developing workplans, they considered those working flexibly to forecast resource needs and deadlines. There was general agreement, however, that senior managers also needed to recognise that not all staff could undertake the workload of a full-time employee, and higher level workplans needed to reflect this.

Why managers refuse flexi-work requests

We heard a range of reasons why managers would like to refuse employee requests to work flexibly. Some were concerned that if they allowed one employee to work from home, they would be inundated with requests from other employees.

“Public service managers proved to be an innovative group.”

Many were concerned about managing a team of largely part-time employees, and the potential impact this might have on meeting deadlines, especially given that the manager often absorbed the urgent work. Without clear guidelines around these tricky scenarios, a handful of managers thought the whole thing was just too hard.

Indeed, most managers expressed a need for more guidance around how to motivate and monitor employees working flexibly, particularly those working from home.

Many managers were also unclear about when and how requests for flexibility could legitimately and legally be denied. Although the Fair Work Act states that a request can be refused on ‘reasonable business grounds’, what constitutes reasonable grounds is unclear to managers.

The Fair Work Ombudsman states that ‘reasonable business grounds’ can include: the requested flexibility being too costly, too impractical, resulting in a ‘significant loss of productivity’ or having ‘a significant negative impact on customer service’.

The Fair Work Commission has also examined the acceptable reasons why requests for flexible working have been refused. These also centre on the proposed working arrangement not being ‘operationally viable’. Essentially, the ‘floodgate’ argument is not a good enough reason to refuse a request; and neither is managerial preference to not have employees working flexibly.

Many managers, however, do not have the time to search for this information. The numbers of requests to work flexibly are likely to escalate due to an increasing recognition that flexibility can benefit a wide range of employees, as well as organisations.

An opportunity therefore exists for public sector human resource practitioners to lead the way and provide regular and ongoing updates about how to manage flexible workers.

Dr Sue Williamson, UNSW Canberra

Dr Linda Colley, Central Queensland University

Dr Meraiah Foley, UNSW Canberra

This article is based on ‘The Role of Middle Managers in Progressing Gender Equity in the Public Sector’, a report written by the authors and Professor Rae Cooper. The report is being launched on  August 1 and will be available from the Public Service Research Group’s website.

The New South Wales, Queensland, South Australian and Tasmanian governments participated in, and funded the research; the Australia and New Zealand School of Government was the principal funder.

For more information on the project, email [email protected].

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