As more organizations globally enforce a return to office, the discussion regarding hybrid working continues to dominate the media and HR forums. Some organizations are gaining media coverage with the introduction of four-day work weeks. However, while these initiatives are often applauded, the nature of a prescribed work pattern is in fact contrary to the idea of flexibility. Instead of discussing whether a nine-day fortnight is better than a four-day work week, or if three days in the office is enough, we should move away from the focus on hybrid and mandated work patterns and instead focus on true flexibility,i.e., giving employees choice, where operationally possible, to decide how, where and when work is performed for the best outcome.

Employees are unique and have individual needs that make fitting into set parameters challenging for some and easier for others. When we focus on equity over equality, the ability to flex to meet these needs supports a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace.

True flexibility includes a broad range of options, including compressed work weeks, flexible start and finish times, the ability to choose the location of the work, and the opportunity to engage in arrangements, such as job sharing or deciding how a piece of work can best be delivered.

The ability to operationalise true flexibility depends on having the right foundations being in place:

Leadership capability and a growth mindset: For leaders comfortable with managing based on visible presence, this requires a shift in capability and mindset. Presenteeism is not a sign of productivity and doesn’t indicate successful outcomes. Leading flexible teams requires trust in the team, the confidence to have difficult conversations when required, and the ability to lead from a distance. If a business is struggling to implement flexible practices,it is possible that the biggest resistance may come from leaders who are uncertain how to manage in this environment and will require training, coaching and having easy-to-use systems and practices in place to support and ensure a consistent experience across teams.

"When we focus on equity over equality, the ability to flex to meet these needs supports a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace"

Understanding operational needs: Effective resource planning enables businesses to understand the peaks and troughs of workflows and to accommodate rosters and work patterns accordingly. This can create opportunities for more flexible options, such as spilt shifts, variable rosters, and part-time work to support peak periods, allowing teams to run leaner when demand is low. By understanding customer and business behaviour, the levers are clearer to ensure continuity of service or product delivery.

The ability to balance multiple needs for great business outcomes:Some leaders are concerned that flexibility means forgoing the needs of the business in favour of the employee, but optimised flexibility actually supports a balance between team, business/customer, and individual needs. This requires the ability to lean into conversations and challenge existing and potentially outdated ways of working. It demands a move away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and consideration to how multiple needs can be balanced. This may mean multiple individual arrangements and the comfort that this is okay. (And it is.)

Supporting systems and processes: Good intentions need to be backed by the rights systems and processes to provide clarity and ease to access flexible work, provide the guardrails of what is and isn’t possible, and help set the expectations of arrangements for both leader and employee. This includes clear understanding on what to do if the arrangement isn’t working.

People centred design: In a truly people-centred organisation, design thinking enables flexible working arrangements by ensuring that there is synergy between human behaviour, space (facilities) and enablers,like digital and information,to create a seamless experience for the end user. Understanding the people journey creates an opportunity to build in efficiency while also creating signature experiences.

What about the frontline?

A common concern regarding flexible work is impact on the frontline. Obviously manual roles may not be able to be performed from home, however,alternative options may include: flexible rosters or breaks, control over schedules, rostered days off, time off in lieu, compressed work weeks, purchased leave,etc. Do teams need to travel back to site at the end of day? Can they choose who they work with, what site they work at, or which roster they work on? Can administrative work be completed at home? When we stop talking about flexibility as a hybrid arrangement, we create more options that suit a variety of roles, including the frontline.

The key to introducing more flexible options is for businesses to do less telling and more listening. When options are mandated,there will always be groups that are impacted more than others. Instead,be open to having the conversations about what is and isn’t possible and to trialling initiatives with individuals or teams. Changing human behaviour, including that of leaders and customers, isn’t easy and may take a few adjustments to be successful. By being open and connected to your people and knowing your business, you open the possibility to be more productive, have better business outcomes, and drive employee and customer satisfaction and retention. That’s good business.