What would a genuinely flexible workplace look like?

I’ve been following the debate around Australia’s “insecure work” problem with some interest. As someone who’s been a casual, a freelancer, a short-term contracted employee and, rarely, a full-time permanent member of staff, I’ve heard a lot of justification for new employment practices, namely centred around flexibility.

What does that word really mean? I see a lot of advertisements for roles that offer “flexibility”, but I’m yet to encounter one that actually reflects what I would assume would be offered under such a banner. To my mind, flexibility means a give-and-take relationship – employees sacrifice certain conditions in order to structure their work life in a way that suits them better.

Wait, what am I talking about? That never happens.

Instead, what I’ve seen in the professional world is a version of “flexibility” where employers get to say, “You can rock up at 9:15 after doing the dreaded school run, but you’d better not think of going home until after 7pm.” Or, “You can have a day off to attend a seminar that is relevant to your non-work interests, but it’ll come out of your leave. And you can’t make up the extra hours over the other four days a week – our working day is 9-5.”

The message is clear: “flexible” workplace or not, if you’re not in the office, at your desk and very, very far away from family, friends and anything else that matters to you, you’re not working.

It would almost be understandable if clear demarcations between “work time” and “not work time” existed, but for many of us, there’s no such thing as true time off any more. We’re connected to the workplace constantly, with work emails forwarded to our smartphones and web logins to major systems from home. We no longer have to physically be in the office to feel like we’re on the job.

So why does this obsession that time at desks equals time worked persist? I find it difficult to understand the correlation, and to me, it’s the biggest barrier to true employment flexibility – particularly in the realm of professional employment where the relationship between the office and work being done doesn’t need to be so clearly defined. We’re treating the COO of Facebook as a flexible work icon for leaving the office at 5:30pm to eat dinner with her children, even though she comes in early and will work from home for a few more hours once the kids have gone to bed. With the technology that working professionals have at their disposal, why on earth isn’t her situation the norm?

Similarly, I was fascinated recently to see a role that was being offered as a 0.8 FTE (salary pro-rated) but that “full-time applicants will also be considered.” The role wasn’t customer-facing – it involved a lot of strategy development and judging by the job description, it could be fitted into four days or performed over five, depending on the working style of the person who got it. Why would one option result in earning less money than another, if the same results were produced?

So, with all that in mind, here’s how I think the roles of the future should be structured:

  • Clear key performance indicators and expected deliverables, so that potential employees know what they’ll be contributing to the company
  • Minimum stated “desk time” to allow employees and the boss to build a relationship as a team, as well as specifying any “on call” expectations (e.g. being available in the case of sudden problems)
  • Set remuneration for the work done, regardless of how many hours they employee actually requires to do it to standard.

The rest would be up to the employee, who is then free to structure their life in a way that allows them to do the job best.

Think of the possibilities! The couple with young children could structure their working week to give each other uninterrupted time in the office and a more equal distribution of home duties. Artists and entrepreneurs working on projects and business ventures could skip the menial jobs and apply their talents to a workplace for a few days each week while earning a decent salary, leaving them with a couple of days free to focus on their other ventures.

People with career- or community-minded interests would have greater options in terms of further study or volunteering. And me? I could do my work when I’m at my most productive (mid-morning to mid-afternoon and late evening), rather than lying awake every night, desperately trying to get some sleep before a 9am workday start but unable to still the ideas rushing around my brain (which, for unknown reasons, only kick in around 11pm).

I’m not trying to denigrate the employment standards that the union movement fought so hard for – in fact, in a lot of industries it should be applied more rigorously. In the professional realm, though, countless talented people are being lost because the employer expectations of what the workday should look like (several hours at a desk in one location) doesn’t fit with the employee’s other life commitments (kids, side projects and community work).

If Australia is serious about workplace flexibility, personal productivity and a culture of professional excellence, we need to unchain people from their desks and start paying people for what they contribute to their workplace, regardless of when and from where they do the job.

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About missaleksia

Street press journalist and culture vulture based in Melbourne, Australia. I enjoy Australian hip hop, obsessively following television shows, healthy debate, baking and wine. My views are my own. Keep up to date with me on Twitter: @missaleksia
This entry was posted in Hey, that IS what she said, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What would a genuinely flexible workplace look like?

  1. Vish says:

    Excellent post, thank you! As a law student, I couldn’t agree more with your argument that employees should be rewarded for output and productivity, not the number of hours they sit at their desk looking busy.

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