Next Gen Incentives – the currency of flex

The push for flexible working conditions is set to grow with a candidate-driven market inspiring employers to change their incentives to attract top talent. We look at recent trials and what employers and employees think.

Engaged employees, less sick leave, higher productivity and a happier workforce are all compelling arguments for the introduction of flexible working conditions within the workplace, and yet it seems many employers continue to resist this push.

The topic received a lot of media attention earlier this year with an eight-week trial of a four-day working week at New Zealand trust company Perpetual Guardian.

All full-time employees out of a workforce of 245, including senior managers, were encouraged to take part in the four-day-week trial – or iterations thereof – during the period, without a pay cut.

Perpetual Guardian’s Head of People & Capability Christine Brotherton explained how company founder Andrew Barnes initiated the trial after reading research that indicated productivity in the workforce can be as low as one-and-a-half hours each day.

“While these findings are not new, they are still shocking, and Andrew wanted to explore the reasons why productivity can be so limited,” Brotherton told The Brief.

“He started wondering if we can give staff a more balanced life, without changing client experience or reducing profitability. Essentially, he’s giving us the opportunity to think differently about productivity by trying not to associate it with hours worked.”

Brotherton explained that the four-day trial – held between March 5 and April 27 – was initially slated as a six-week trial but the company was keen to collect more data so it could be assessed to determine whether the trial was a commercial success.

She said the trial, for some, meant working five shorter work days, for others it was four days each week and others still would organise days off around their work schedules. For those choosing the four day week, teams were left to work out the logistics, with the only parameters being client service remained high and business hours were unchanged.

“As we made it a staff-led trial, all staff were able to make their own decisions about how to make it work for them,” Brotherton said. “Some people and teams have really embraced and flourished with the four-day week, while other teams have decided that coming in later and leaving earlier (to beat traffic) were their preferred flexibility option.

“We wanted staff to feel empowered to design their four-day working week themselves around what works best for them and their teams’ workflows.”

Brotherton said there had been “real enthusiasm” to make the trial work.

“Since the trial started, we have noticed that people seem more energised and have seen more collaboration across teams,” she explained. “We’ve seen more focus while at work and a real sense of pride in trying something innovative and challenging. Families have been very supportive.

“Many of our management staff have also seen a lot of value come from the trial, in getting to know their team better and identify how individuals and teams work better.”

The company is now reviewing and analysing the productivity measures that were set at the start of the trial. Professor Jarrod Haar (AUT), Dr Helen Delaney and Professor James Sun (Auckland University Business School) are conducting their research on the impact of the trial on employee engagement and wellbeing.

The results of this analysis will determine if there is a business case for the introduction of flexible working arrangements for Perpetual Guardian’s staff on an ongoing basis. The results were unavailable at the time of publication.

Brotherton, who works flexibly on a part-time basis, said early indicators were that the trial was proving successful in terms of the goodwill and reciprocity created with staff.

“Some early signs that we observed during the trial have been positive, and that a number of our teams have been able to keep productivity at the same level (or increased) with the trial,” she said.

“We’ve seen great results from teams who have been questioning and challenging existing work practices and trialling new ways of working. We think there will be lots of opportunity for this across our entire business after the trial finishes. Though, we will need to wait until we have analysed the productivity measures, and the researchers can provide the impact of the trial on engagement to really understand how it has worked.”

Brotherton said they were surprised at the level of inquiries they received about the trial from across New Zealand and globally.

“It just shows that we are all grappling with how we work and are looking for some form of flexibility from the standard 9-5pm and daily commute,” she said.

“We are doing this to generate an empowered, engaged and staff-led discussion with a focus on respective team and individual productivity.

“We want to see if increased working flexibility and the opportunity to spend more quality time with family and pursuing personal interests is valued such that it not only increases overall staff engagement, but specifically also results in increased productivity.”

While there are still many uncertainties about how flexible working arrangements could and should be introduced, one US company conducted its own trial and demonstrated that flexible working arrangements only work for staff when they, themselves, are in fact flexible.

The company trialled a four-day working week where one-third of its staff were required to work a compressed working week of four, 10 hour days. Confusingly, the staff did not have an option to refuse these new “flexible working conditions” and unsurprisingly, 35 per cent of those taking part in the trial reported low satisfaction levels.

RCSA board member Andrew Sullivan has been trialling flexible working arrangements for staff at his Adelaide-based firm SULLIVAN Consulting.

“Flexible working arrangements were introduced very early on for us,” Sullivan explained. “Part of that is about wanting a better, healthier work/life balance for myself and recognising that my staff want and deserve that as well.

“I have a young family so I leave the office at 4.30pm to pick up the kids and spend plenty of time with them. I didn’t want to miss out on time with my family while they are still so young.”

Sullivan explained that one staff member chooses which days she works on a weekly basis to fit in with her family’s schedule and she is responsible for managing her hours and workload.

Another staff member opted for a four-day week while there are also staff who work from home.

“People need to recognise the workforce has changed in the past 10 to 15 years,” he said. “We have seen our parents’ generation working Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 5.30pm, with no flexibility at all.

“We also recognise that people’s needs and desires are very different. Everyone seems to have busier lifestyles and employers need to adapt to that.”

Sullivan said there is a discernible shift among candidates who have been clear they are happy to sacrifice a wage increase and in some cases, even promotions, if it means they can enjoy the benefits of flexible working hours.

He cited one candidate he worked with recently who was prepared to sacrifice $20,000 of his pay in a new position if he was given flexible working hours.

“We have found the key to making flexible working arrangements actually work is to make sure there is open communication between the staff about it at all times,” he said. “It comes down to trust. No-one flaunts it or undermines what we are trying to do and it works really well.”

Flexible Working Day’s Ambassador Melissa Griffiths said flexible working arrangements can mean different things to different people.

“Flexible working arrangements is not a generic term that means just one thing,” she said. “For some people, flexible work may mean a four-day week, for others it’s flexible hours five days a week, others still want additional leave for reduced pay or parental leave.

“We now have the technology which facilitates people working from home or even overseas. And the introduction of something as simple as optional staggered starting and finishing times for staff often proves very popular, as it allows them to negotiate peak hour traffic by coming in earlier or later.

“When it’s done right, flexible conditions create happier working environments, employees are more productive and it’s more likely the case that when the boss needs someone to stay back to finish a project, staff will be happy to oblige because their welfare has been considered by their employer.”

Griffiths, who enjoys flexible working conditions at her job with the Australian Tax Office, said workplaces and individuals who promoted flexible working hours were rewarded for their contribution to tackling “flexism”.

“If you are a minority, you may be too scared to ask for time off for medical appointments, or a single parent may be reluctant to ask for time off to attend a school sporting event,” she explained.

“Flexible working conditions address this and allow people to have the flexibility they need to live a full and productive life while contributing to the economy.”

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