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Flexible work is becoming increasingly more common, as employers shun the traditional 9 to 5 in favour of four day work weeks, unconventional working hours, or working from home. But despite this shift, stigmas still remain around flexible work arrangements, particularly for men, but also for women, who face the ‘ambition gap’. Although many Australian workers have a legal right to request flexible work, these stigmas can make it tricky to take the leap and have The Talk, as employees worry their manager will think they aren’t dedicated to their job. We spoke to three experts, including Dr Katie Spearritt, CEO and founder of Diversity Partners, a firm which provides consulting advice to organisations on diversity, flexibility, and inclusive leadership in Australasia, Prue Gilbert, CEO and founder of Grace Papers, a digital platform that offers advice and programs for working parents and companies, and Lisa Annese, CEO of Diversity Council Australia, who revealed their top tips for those looking to request a flexible work arrangement.
Ideally, if you’re after a more flexible role, it helps to seek out a company you know will be open to flexible work arrangements. “It’s important to first pick an employer that offers flexible work, and to make decisions on where you want to work based on an organisation’s reputation,” Annese said. “Increasingly, the more people who do that, the more pressure organisations will face to offer flexible work. You need to do a bit of research about the organisation and what policies it provides, and then assess the culture within the organisation. Sometimes workplaces have fantastic policies but no-one takes them up because the culture in the organisation is very hostile to flexible work.”
Gilbert stressed the importance of knowing your legal rights when it comes to requesting flexible work. “It’s important to understand what your rights are, albeit knowing your rights or enforcing those rights may not be the path you want to take the conversation down, but you still need to be aware of them,” she said. Australian employees can find out their eligibility and rights to flexible work on the Fair Work website.
One piece of advice Gilbert always gives to working mothers wanting flexible work is to position their request in terms of their long-term career vision. “When you’re negotiating flexibility, don’t start with the case for flexibility,” she said. “Start with your career vision, and end with the kind of flexibility you need to be able to deliver or realise you career vision, because one of the other things women come up against is ambition bias. It is still commonly assumed that working mothers who request flexibility, particularly part-time work, are no longer committed to their careers. So that’s one way you can address any potential bias.”
Gilbert said it’s important to position your request for flexible work not just in terms of how it benefits your own needs, but also how it benefits your manager and business. “I’ve heard many leaders say ‘Flexibility is not our core business’, and I think that’s a really good thing to remember,” she said. “We have to look at it in the context of the business benefits of reducing work-life conflict, and I think this is where we’re seeing organisations really shift their focus. There’s also innovation and creativity and mental health – there are huge benefits that then flow on to productivity by enabling people to have more autonomy and control over their work schedules. I think you also need to consider how your manager might struggle with job redesign. They may not have necessarily been trained in it, and that can erode trust, when they don’t have the capability to redesign a role and manage it. So that’s where I think we’re still in a situation where if you are seeking flexibility, you have to address some of those managerial issues, and position it in a way that addresses their concerns.”
When pitching your request for flexible work, you will need to consider how your performance could be measured in the long-term. “In terms of thinking about whether it’s going to be an effective arrangement, think about what measures you might use to measure how your performance is going,” Dr Spearritt said. “So it’s really important to think about whether you need to make changes to your current performance measures, and what sort of potential issues might come up in terms of impacts on customers or clients and what might be some potential solutions to those. As you’re starting in a flexible work arrangement it’s really good to review how it’s going at the three month mark, the six month mark, and the 12 month mark. By putting aside just half an hour at those intervals, you’re able to check in if the arrangement is working well, and also preempting any issues or challenges that may come up. You should have a chat with your manager about this, then submit a written request, putting it all down in writing, and make the time to discuss it with your manager in an open way.”
If your manager turns down your request for a flexible work arrangement, you should make sure they have a good case for their decision, and that unconscious bias hasn’t come into play. Gilbert suggests employees discuss the decision with their manager and consider whether any other options are available. “So let’s say you requested to work part-time and that was declined, find out whether an informal arrangement, like working a certain number of hours, is available,” she said. “I’d ask what the concerns are and explore different ways you may be able to adjust your flexibility to meet the requirements of the role. But it’s important to focus on what the inherent requirements of your role are, and then showing you can meet those.”
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