When I had my first child, I remember returning to work part-time, telling myself that when my son started school five days a week, I’d be in a better position to go back to work for five days too. It didn’t take long for me to learn that the 9-5 work day and the 9-3 school day were at odds. I was somehow meant to be taking my son to school and be on my way to work at exactly the same time. And then there was the question of where he was meant to go and who was going to look after him in the two hours (or three and a half, if I count the commute time) between him finishing school and me getting back from the office to pick him up.
This tricky negotiation of family and work commitments is a dilemma that every working parent of school-aged children knows well.
As a writer, I had two options: find a company willing to provide flexible working arrangements, or work as a freelancer.
Two things surprised me during my job search. The first is the reluctance by many employers to provide their employees flexible work arrangements to accommodate their familial responsibilities. I find this baffling because almost 1 in 3 households in Australia are made up of couples with children (30.3% based on the 2017 Census and this figure doesn’t even include single parent families), so the challenge of scheduling school drop offs, pick ups and holiday care is not an uncommon phenomenon.
Is it even worth considering any of these things?
The consensus from the Australian workforce is a resounding YES.
A 2017 Global Talent Study found that most Australians would choose flexible working over pay when looking for a new employer. It also found that work/life balance (or perhaps more accurately, lack of) is a key reason Australians will leave a job.
In other words, employers need to be willing to challenge the status quo when it comes to flexible working, or face the risk of increasing turnover and decreasing productivity among your people.
Personally, I wouldn’t work for an employer who didn’t provide an option for flexible work; it’s now simply part of the overall package when I consider how I’m willing to be compensated for my time. Lucky for me, Reward Gateway is one of the employers who provides this.
The second thing that surprised me is the reluctance by employees (fathers especially, I’ve found) to request flexible working arrangements. The concept of “business hours” is so fundamental to how we operate that we’ve forgotten it’s an entirely cultural, man-made construct. Perhaps I would have been reluctant to question the status quo too, had I not learned early on that under the Fair Work Act 2009, if you are parent of or are responsible for caring for a child who is school aged or younger, you have the right to request flexible working arrangements from your employer. And, importantly, employers can only refuse if there are reasonable business grounds to do so.
You can bend without breaking
If the concept of providing your people the option to work flexibly scares you, it might help to approach it with small steps. I know that as a writer, the nature of my job allows me to work from anywhere I have a laptop and internet connection. But some roles (particularly customer-facing roles or those with a hands-on aspect like hospitality, medicine or retail) require people to do the job on site — being absent would significantly impact effectiveness or productivity. But instead of ruling out the option of flexible work, as an employer or team leader you can start by considering which job parameters you can shift to offer flexibility.
Rather than abolishing starting and finishing times altogether, can you start by pushing them back or forward by 1 or 2 hours? Is it absolutely critical for all the work to be done in the office, between 8am and 5pm? Or can some work (like admin, research, or responding to emails) be done between 6 and 8am, or between 8 and 10pm, or during the commute? Are there tools you can invest in that enable work to be done elsewhere — be it a laptop, videoconferencing technology, or a portable phone that connects support reps into the call queue?
Sometimes, increasing employee engagement is simply a matter of taking some time to consider what small elements of a job can be changed to better accommodate the needs of both the individual and the business.
Flexible working increases employee engagement
The more I’ve reflected on this post, I’ve realised that my ability to work flexibly is daily call for me and my team to demonstrate our company values:
Be human: Family is important to me, and my commitment to them sometimes means I’m more productive in both my professional AND personal life when I don’t go into the office.
Own it: I’m responsible for delivering what I’ve promised to, and my leaders and team trust me to own it and do it.
Work hard: Balancing the daily demands of research and editorial deadlines with the needs of a young family is not a task for the fainthearted. It means being fully present when I am in “work mode” and knowing how to identify and focus on the most impactful work.
Think globally: It’s never just about what’s best for me, it’s what’s best for me AND the business. I need to make myself available to do my best in the time/place I can give my best. Sometimes that means taking a call at 6am, and sometimes that means writing an eBook at 11pm — not because I’m working longer hours, but because I took a few hours out of the afternoon to pick up kids from school and prepare dinner.
Delight your customers: Creating content that reflects the stories of our customers means being present with them and working with the people who work closest to them. I can have deeper and more productive conversations when face-to-face compared to, say, a video call or conversation on Slack. This is why I love coming into the office and surrounding myself with our client-facing teams!
Push the boundaries: This is a learning process for me, my boss, my team, and my organisation. But just because we haven’t done something before, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.
Speak up: When things aren’t working, we need to have an open and honest conversation so we can adapt and work towards a solution.
Love your job: All of these put together means I get to do meaningful work that I enjoy and has a positive impact — not just to my company, but to my family. What more can I ask for?
As an employee, seeing these values being demonstrated on a daily basis through my leaders and my team has been amazing. Because they’re willing to put the trust and effort in me, I want to give 100% of my effort to them.
Have I cracked the work/life balance puzzle? Not exactly, but I will say that flexible work means I’m both more motivated and more satisfied at work, and I’m more present and productive at home. This isn’t just a good thing for me personally, or even for my business, but for the broader community. How powerful would we be as a society if we had more satisfied, more motivated, and fully present mothers and fathers giving their 100% in their homes and in their jobs?
As the needs of the business and my family change, I know this will be a continual work in progress, but I am grateful to have the option to explore it. As the proverb goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” — and the benefits will come to the employers who recognise themselves as an integral part of that village.