Earlier this week, our FlexReady consulting team hosted an engaging panel discussion event at Stone & Chalk in Sydney. The evening offered a rare insight into what flexible working success looks like, delving into how leading employers are embedding flexibility, uncovering the wide-ranging benefits, from gender equality to employee wellness and examining the challenges employers face along their flexibility journeys.
David Shirley, our Head of Consulting, hosted the discussion and was joined by three workplace flexibility champions – Lion’s Inclusion and Diversity leader Kate McRae Sermanni, FlexCareers Partner Ariane Virtue, and Head of Corporate Communications at AbbVie Kate Richards.
David kicked off by asking our panelists what flexibility meant to them and why they had embarked on their flexibility journeys. As Head of Communications at AbbVie and also Co-Chair of the pharmaceutical industry’s gender equity group (PAGE), Kate Richards stressed how important flexible working practices are when it comes to building reputation and attracting talent within her industry. She also firmly believes we can’t achieve true gender equality in the workplace without embedded and normalised flexible working practices.
And as Head of Inclusion and Diversity at Lion, Kate McRae Sermanni explained how she believes flexibility is the successful integration of work and life. Having personally enjoyed access to flexibility and a fulfilling career for over 10 years, she is passionate about the power of flexibility, what it means in terms of wellbeing, being our best at home and at work and the wider benefits to businesses and society.
And for Ariane Virtue, although the benefits of flexible working are so far reaching, many employers don’t know how to embed and normalise it. Flexibility doesn’t have to be complicated: it’s just about how, when and where we work. It’s about changing and humanising the way we work, to make work, work. Ariane’s dedicated to unbundling the myths around flexibility that are still so pervasive within Australian workplaces.
Benefits of flexibility
David moved on to reflect on how organisations need to manage, monitor and report the benefits of embedding and normalising flexible work arrangements for flexibility to be advantageous and worthwhile. Ariane noted that flexible arrangements have to work for five groups of an organisation – for individuals, teams and leaders, the wider organisation and ultimately the customer. David touched upon the wider benefits for society and the environment.
According to Ariane flexibility makes business sense. From graduates up to CEOs, men and women, young and old, employee engagement and wellness, loyalty, productivity and retention are all increasing. Not only are organisations retaining IP and expertise, but customer led organisations also retain valuable longstanding business networks.
Key takeaway: The benefits of flexibility are wide-reaching and will ultimately help you to drive productivity and reduce costs.
Flexibility and gender equality
All of our panellists agreed that flexibility plays a huge role when it comes to workplace gender equality. Kate Richards explained how AbbVie is a purpose driven organisation with equality at its heart, and you can’t have true equality without flexibility. She stressed how there are still so many inequalities around the male employee experience and how we all need to support our male colleagues to ask for flexibility too.
Kate Richards also spoke about her work with the PAGE group and how the wider pharmaceutical industry wants to be known as an industry where everyone can be equally valued and rewarded. In her view, if they don’t get the flexibility piece right, then they won’t get the gender equality piece right either. Kate Sermanni agreed that the number of men now accessing flexibility at Lion is a true indicator of how inclusive their culture has become. Both panellists agreed that their organisations had made great progress around encouraging men to adopt flexible working.
Key takeaway: If you don’t get the flexibility piece right to align with your strategies and purpose of your organisation, then you won’t get the gender equality piece right either.
David went on to ask our panellists to name one thing they are most proud of when it comes to their work in the flexibility space. For Kate Richards, it’s AbbVie’s creative approach to flexibility which is so inspiring and rewarding. Employees access flexibility and are supported depending on their own unique personal circumstances.
For Kate Sermanni, it’s the way Lion has been able to track and measure the success of flexibility with real analytics. She explained how the research and data she has been collecting in areas such as employee mindset and engagement helps to reinforce the business case for Lion’s flexible framework. And for Ariane, she highlighted how proud she is of the impact her consulting work has on Australian businesses, talent and wellbeing. She explained that organisations embracing flexibility enable employees to be the best they can be both at home and at work – mentally, physically and emotionally.
Key takeaway: Flexibility is complex and everyone has their own unique experience of what flexibility success looks like.
Making sure flexibility is genuine
The discussion moved on to how people have to be cautious around whether an organisation offers genuine flexibility or whether it’s just ticking the boxes. Kate Richards explained anecdotally how when a friend asked her how to approach the topic of flexibility in a job interview, she simply told her to ask whether or not the CEO works flexibly. In other words, if you want flexibility to work it has to be role modelled from the top.
She pointed out that having a CEO that leaves work loudly – “I’m leaving at 4pm to go to the gym” – is so meaningful for other employees. If the head of an organisation is talking proudly about flexibility, then their employees can do so too.
Kate Sermanni agreed that the key reason why Lion is able to retain great talent is because they have some really strong, very senior role models who work flexibly. This then demonstrates that there are flexible, long term career paths for all employees.
Key takeaway: If you want flexibility to be successful, it needs to be modelled from the top down.
Barriers to flexibility success
David then went on to highlight a number of barriers to flexibility success. Our panellists agreed that leadership lottery – when you work for a flexible employer but your line manager prevents you from accessing the flexibility you require – is one of the biggest challenges. Ariane pointed out that even if a manger has no need to work flexibly themselves, they need to embrace flexible practices for their team. It also comes down to a lack of trust where managers don’t trust employees to do their jobs effectively when they are not present in the office.
Kate Richards also highlighted how flexibility equity needs to be addressed. She explained how there is still a prevalent belief that if we give this type of flexibility to one employee, and not the other, then it’s somehow unfair. But our panellists agreed that all elements of flexibility are not all appropriate for all roles depending on type of role and geographical location. It should be about having honest, open and adult conversations not about inequity, but about the reality of business.
For Kate Sermanni, mindset is also a huge barrier for individuals who fear that if they request flexible work arrangements, they won’t be seen as committed or won’t proceed in their career so fast. She believes employers need to have conversations around flexibility and career succession planning, explore unconscious bias and challenge stereotypes around flexibility. She summarised by saying at the end of the day, we need to start saying yes to ‘flexsperiments’ – giving flexibility a go and then seeing where and how you can improve.
Key takeaway: You need to eliminate pockets within your organisation who aren’t working flexibly by giving managers the skills they need to make flexibility work within their teams. It is imperative to train and coach your people to work flexibly, successfully.
Finally, our panellists were asked to share the key lessons they had learned around flexibility in the last 12 months or so. Both Kate Richards and Kate Sermanni agreed that taking a change management approach has been essential due to the complexity around changing mindsets and behaviours. Kate Richards pointed out how organisations in the infancy of their flexibility journey often have the change management skills they need internally to embed flexibility effectively.
For Ariane, flexibility is no longer about best practice – it now has to be about how ‘best practice meets best fit’. Organisations need to understand the business case and purpose for embedding and normalising flexible working and understand the why and how to be able to reap the rewards.
Key takeaway: Flexibility has evolved from a nice-to-have policy to a core organisational philosophy or framework. It’s about humanising work for everyone. Let’s do this!