Striking a balance Down Under

Traditional work models are a thing of the past in Australia, where flexibility and work-life balance prevail. HRM Asia speaks to HR directors about how and why their organisations have broken away from the nine-to-six norm.

The number of part-time workers in Australia hit an all-time high in January this year.

Employment data from the country’s Bureau of Statistics revealed there were nearly four million part-time workers in Australia at the end of 2015, representing 31% of the total workforce. This is the highest level of part-time employment ever recorded.

Industry practitioners tell HRM Asia part-time employment is on the rise because it affords employees the freedom and flexibility that they need and want in their jobs.

This same reason is why most say flexible work arrangements are not just commonplace in Australia, but even mandatory in some circumstances.

While most of Asia is still sticking to conventional working models, a majority of Australian companies already have well-established flexible work policies.

“Oh, it’s a foregone conclusion here,” remarks Fiona Jury, Director at recruitment firm ChapmanCG, on the prevalence of flexible work arrangements in Australia.

“We have seen a lot of progressive companies move to flexible working. The ones who aren’t offering this are now behind the times.”

Jury says one reason for the prevalence of non-traditional work policies is the growing number of mothers in the workforce, who are customarily also the primary carer in their families.

“It’s very expensive for us to hire nannies and have live-in maids here in Australia so a lot of women need to work part-time or have job flexibility,” she explains. “So you look at an HR manager’s profile on LinkedIn, and it looks like they are only working three of four days a week or they have got flexibility to start at 9.30am after school drop-offs.”

Two working parents

But many organisations also recognise the need to extend these options to men as well as women – a point that Jury also expressed.

National Australia Bank (NAB) is one such organisation. It not only offers a multitude of flexi-work options, but also has a parental leave scheme that is available to all employees, regardless of gender and marital status.

Kate Colley, Head of People, Asia and International Branches for NAB, says the bank is putting its money where its mouth is and breaking away from the traditional nine-to-six office mindset.

Colley says NAB employees have options to: work some of the regular office hours from home, or from another remote location; work the same number of hours over fewer days per week; job-share, which is when two part-time employees share the workload and pay of a single full-time role; or even take what the company calls “lifestyle” leave to volunteer or further their studies and personal interests.

“We have policies in place, and we train our leaders to be able to support this practice,” she adds.

Colley also echoes Jury’s sentiment that providing flexible work policies is a common practice in Australia. It is not just a perk job seekers want, but something they now expect.

“People are requesting flexible work options in their contracts, but more importantly, they are expecting employers to have really great policies and practices around flexible working terms. Even if it’s not contractual, it should be part of the DNA of the enterprise,” Colley says.

Further related to the demand for increased job flexibility is the emergence of more households with two working parents. This has increased the importance of family time across the country, Colley adds.

“Men, as well as women, want to be fully involved in their children’s lives and in raising their families,” Colley says. She says there is an increased understanding that fathers who participate more in family life and childcare help to improve the cognitive and emotional development of their children.

NAB rolled out a universal parental leave scheme across its Australian offices in 2015. Under the scheme, all primary carers are able to take leave for up to 12 months, of which NAB pays the full salary for up to 12 weeks, without impacting the individual’s job scope or career path.

“Our enhanced parental leave policy considers the needs of our people from the time they are expecting or adopting a child right through to returning to work after a period of parental leave. It provides them with a variety of leave options and working arrangements,” Colley explains.

“In doing so, we also want to better support and advance women’s careers by creating a culture that provides equal opportunity to all parents, regardless of gender or life goals.”

The success of the leave initiative in Australia also prompted the bank to launch the scheme across its offices in Hong Kong, Beijing and Singapore in June this year.

“The Asia launch of the parental leave policy now aligns NAB in Asia with our group’s efforts in supporting married and single parents of children – biological or adopted – through greater work flexibility when they are the primary or secondary carer,” Colley says.

All roles flex

According to Sarah Beck, Head of Executive Search at online job portal Seek.com.au, changing social norms surrounding day-to-day parenting roles mean mothers are no longer expected to handle the majority of caring duties at home.

More male employees are also looking for jobs that can accommodate their needs as fathers and carers.

“It is increasingly common to have both parents in a household working, which means that work-life balance is becoming a bigger priority for both men and women who need to accommodate work and family responsibilities,” she explains.

Seek recognises the importance and value of providing flexible work arrangements to support its “diverse and high-performing culture”. The company allows anyone to request for flexible work arrangements, although each request is managed on a case-by-case basis.

“We believe that helping take pressure off and allowing for greater balance across all aspects of employees’ lives creates a more productive and fulfilling work environment,” Beck shares.

Telecommunications and media company Telstra, is also ahead of the curve when it comes to organisational flexibility. The company took on the results-oriented “All Roles Flex” approach a few years ago.

“This means flexibility is the starting position for all work and roles – anyone can apply to work flexibly, and it will be granted, as long as business needs are met,” explains Darren Fewster, Executive Director of Global HR Shared Services with Telstra Australia.

He adds that this exemplifies Telstra’s focus on work outcomes, and not face-time at the office. This mentality starts from the top of the organisation.

“Flexibility is not just a reward for good performers – it’s for everyone,” he says. “Our leaders are asked to talk to their people about what they need to balance their work and personal commitments.”

The “All Roles Flex” approach is executed right from recruitment stage. Fewster says the company has a designated searchable category of “flexible jobs” on the Telstra careers web portal.

In fact, since 2014, all of Telstra’s job advertisements contain the following statement: “We work flexibly at Telstra. Talk to us about how this job could be flexible for you.”

The policies at Australian telecommunications provider Optus also tend to follow broader demographic trends, with the company acknowledging that family time has indeed become a top priority for many employees.

“In particular, people are having children later in life so they are trying to balance those priorities,” a spokesperson told HRM Asia. “We are very supportive of our staff in this regard, and we offer twelve weeks of paid maternity or paternity leave.”

Optus, a subsidiary of Singapore Telecommunications (Singtel), even has an on-site childcare facility to assist with the transition for parents back into the workplace.

In view of this, at least half of Optus’ staff members have the option to work flexibly in some capacity. “Wherever this is possible, we try and facilitate the option for employees. Indicators suggest flexible working conditions have a very positive effect on the productivity of our business,” the spokesperson said.

Millennials in the digital age

But it is not just changing family norms that have led to a rising number of candidates seeking part-time employment and other flexible work arrangements in Australia.

Numerous studies have shown that while millennials now form the largest proportion of the workforce, they are also the least engaged demographic at work. It has been found that traditional work scopes and settings simply do not appeal to them.

“The millennial generation is not inspired by the traditional work model,” says Colley. “They have a whole heap of stuff happening outside of work, and it doesn’t meet their needs. So we have to move with the times in order to attract, retain, and engage talents on the job.”

Telstra’s Fewster agrees, saying “various studies now point to an increased focus on freelance work, particularly for millennials”.

“People are being engaged in many different ways, with a significant shift to project work of a fixed or contractual nature. And research points to these trends not only continuing, but growing over time,” he adds.

“We are seeing similar trends in HR at Telstra.”

Parallel to the need to tailor work policies to the younger generation is the way digital capabilities have also enabled companies to rethink the traditional nine-to-six office arrangement.

“Technology is enabling people to work effectively outside of the brick-and-mortar office,” explains Beck. “This is opening up opportunities for people and businesses to re-think how people can contribute, communicate and get their work done in a way that is more accommodating to their personal life and preferred working style.”

Cloud computing in particular is proving to be a transformative digital platform that has made remote working and other flexible arrangements possible, says ChapmanCG’s Jury.

“The cloud has enabled flexible working because you can easily work from home, and you can easily go around and work through different IT platforms from wherever you are,” she says.

“It used to be difficult to log in through some sort of virtual private network that invariably wouldn’t work, but the cloud has really enabled much more flexibility and working from client premises, or home, or anywhere really.”

So ubiquitous is technology that it prompts Colley to go one step further, posing the question of whether ‘work-life balance’ should even continue to be labelled as such.

“People are no longer working the traditional office hours, and with the emergence of technology, the line between traditional office work and home time has now become blurred.”

Business scalability

The benefits of a flexible workforce flow in both directions. While staff enjoy greater freedom and empowerment, employers also see advantages, Beck says.

She explains that it allows employers to address changes in markets and to scale their businesses according to today’s turbulent economic landscape.

“This has created an opportunity for HR professionals to creatively explore how their business can create an environment and culture that offers a fulfilling and sustainable approach to work for employees,” Beck says.

Fewster notes that “companies can also benefit as they can more easily align to funding models for discrete projects or pieces of work, attracting the right talent for each project”.

But he cautions that maintaining a core of high-performing employees who set the agenda, build the culture, and drive results will continue to be critical for most companies.

Jury says having less-rigid policies adds to the employee value proposition.

“(The flexibility) makes it a great reason to go to work for such companies because they are really moving more towards an output-based mindset, rather than having to sit in an office all day,” says Jury.

Still, more models like these need to be continually monitored, and even altered periodically. According to Jury, the main challenges lie in ensuring group collaboration and leadership development.

“Leaders who are managing virtual workers have to keep the communication high, keep workers engaged, and be on the front foot if there are any issues,” she says.

Australians want more family time

A Work and Family Policy Roundtable report published in May 2016 recommended that Australia’s National Employment Standards cap total working hours per week at a maximum of 38 hours. It also advocated giving casual workers and part-time permanent workers the benefit of paid parental and carer’s leave.

The goal is for both men and women to play an equal role in parenting.

The report also advocated for the following reforms:

  • Extending parental leave pay and “Dad and Partner” pay to 26 weeks in the coming three-year federal government term; and
  • Eventually extending both allowances to 52 weeks;

The study stated that “Australia was moving backwards on work and family issues” because of the government’s increased emphasis on bottom lines over family life.

It found that since the 2015 budget, major cuts had been made to the country’s first universal paid parental leave scheme, and plans to restructure the Early Childhood Education and Care funding by adding A$3.5 billion (US$2.7 billion) over five years had been deferred to 2018.

 

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