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Organisations Need to Embrace a Flexible Future

19 September 2016 at 11:47 am
Wendy Williams
Businesses are missing “a major opportunity” and could be left behind if they don’t embrace flexibility, according to a new report.

Wendy Williams | 19 September 2016 at 11:47 am


Organisations Need to Embrace a Flexible Future
19 September 2016 at 11:47 am

Businesses are missing “a major opportunity” and could be left behind if they don’t embrace flexibility, according to a new report.

flexible working

Future-Flex, a research project from Diversity Council Australia, seeks to challenge mindsets and “outdated assumptions” about the nature of work, what constitutes the “ideal worker” and what drives performance and productivity.

The Not for Profit is calling on organisations to rethink their approach to flexibility in the face of globalisation, technological advancements and demographic shifts.

DCA CEO Lisa Annese told Pro Bono Australia News that organisations needed to stop “tinkering around the edges” of flexible working or they would be left behind.

“The World Economic Forum predicts that we are on the cusp of a ‘fourth industrial revolution’,” Annese said.

“Technological, socioeconomic and demographic shifts are transforming the way we work, demanding flexibility in the way individuals, teams and organisations work.

“We need to grasp the opportunity to be more creative and innovative when it comes to work design.

“It’s really a win-win. It’s about enabling staff to meet their work life needs whilst at the same time having an agile and adaptive work environment that can respond to global changes and can be innovative. So flexibility works both ways for both employees and employers.

“Those organisations that fail to adopt a different approach to flexible work will be unable to experience the benefits or meet future challenges – and that’s not good for anyone.”

The report said they were several factors driving the change:

  • Employees. The demands and expectations of today’s diverse, multi-generational, mobile workforce are transforming where, when and how we work.
  • Globalisation. The development of a 24/7 marketplace, and the rapid expansion of the services economy are also having a transformational effect on the workplace. Companies are increasingly working across time zones and with global virtual teams.
  • Technology. Technology is both a driver and an enabler of flexibility, and has dramatically reshaped workplaces, blurring the boundaries between work and home and diversifying where, when and how employees work.
  • Culture. Organisational culture is both a driver and an enabler of flexibility, arguably the most critical of all enablers. Building a culture of future-focused flexibility requires a sustained strategic change approach that is structured around business goals and outcomes and is supported at the highest levels of an organisation.  

Co-author of the research and industry consultant on diversity, flexibility and organisational change Dr Graeme Russell said flexibility had the potential to change the way people work.

“What we were trying to do with this report is to say that people have missed a major opportunity with regards to flexibility,” Russell told Pro Bono Australia News.

“Because flexibility has the potential to influence not only the well being of an individual but the wellbeing of an organisation and to change the way we do our work.

“So in other words, if you engage seriously and connect with flexible work, there is an opportunity here to redesign jobs and to redesign work. To have then better jobs, [that are] more meaningful, better quality, more efficiency and so on, that can then lead to higher levels of productivity and performance.

“It’s about saying that this is as much a business issue as it is an individual issue… it is often the case that people say ‘well, you have to give me a business case for flexibility at an individual level’, this is saying that the opportunities and the benefits are much broader than that.”

Annese said Future-Flex gave organisations the tools to mainstream flexibility.

“Our members repeatedly request guidance on how they can build leaders’ ability to (re)design work and jobs,” she said.

“This is a critical obstacle to mainstreaming flexibility in their workplaces and experiencing the associated business benefits.

“Future-Flex gives organisations the tools to mainstream flexibility by looking at work design with the team, and the whole organisation, in mind rather than coming up with ad-hoc arrangements.”

The tools were developed following a review of international and national industry and academic literature about workplace flexibility and the future of work, interviews staff working in a retail environment, and DCA’s experience assisting workforces make flexible work and flexible careers standard business practice.

The new approach:

  • Starts with the team. Future-Flex is about re-designing work at a team or whole of organisation level. Employees are key partners in developing team‐based flexibility solutions that work.
  • Treats flexibility as a business tool. Future-Flex emphasises the goals of both the organisation and its employees. It focuses on flexible work that boosts the performance and wellbeing of organisations, teams and individuals. Meeting business goals in areas such as customer service, innovation, growth and efficiency is central to Future-Flex.
  • Considers culture. Future-Flex recognises that organisational and team cultures are critical to the success of workplaces where employees can access flexibility for all roles and for any reason, and can have successful, engaged careers.
  • Challenges bias. Shifting to a Future-Flex mindset involves being aware of our own biases – conscious and unconscious. Many people make assumptions about what it means to be a flexible worker (eg about people’s career aspirations, interest in training and development, levels of commitment to the organisation etc.) Future-Flex tools explore and challenge these biases.

Annese said changing to a flexible workforce required a shift in mindset.

“Businesses are made of people, so really when it comes down to it, it is about shifting the mindset of individuals,” she said.

“I think leaders in organisations have to make it really clear that this is the way forward, I think there will be individuals who will adapt well and adapt early and other individuals who won’t be able to, or will be forced to reluctantly. So it probably going to be a combination of both but organisation, especially in the new knowledge based economy, are made up of people and people will have to drive the way.”

Russell said he hoped the report would disrupt the status quo.

“Flexible work hasn’t happened on its own,” Russell said.

“Work is changing but I don’t have any faith that flexible work is going to be mainstreamed and part of the way people do business and do their work just through an organic process, there needs to be some disruptor in that whole thing to say flexible work is more important than just letting it develop it organically in that way, it is more important to organisations, it has the potential, as we argue in there, to increase innovation.

“I’ve been working, consulting on flexibility and diversity for around a bit over 30 years, it is still the case that I go into organisations that are struggling with this, it has not stuck as being part of mainstream business. So I don’t think it will happen unless there is some fundamental shift and that’s what we’re trying to do with this report.

“There is a shift in mindset needed by everybody in an organisation.”

Russell said business needs to bite the bullet.

“Unless you kind of take that initial step to say we can do something different around the way we organise our work, flexibility just sits on the periphery line, like a fridge magnet, it’s an individual thing, so I’m going to take some time off today or I’m going to take parental leave, or I’m going to work flexible hours and so on.

“The trouble with it is that very few organisations are prepared to take the risk and to bite the bullet to do this differently.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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