During the COVID-19 pandemic, most workplaces were forced to think creatively about how their staff could still get work done outside of the traditional office-based model of work.
Employees who were able to work efficiently and effectively from home during lockdown now expect that those flexible working arrangements will continue to be available. Now that we’re on our way out of the pandemic, many workplaces are looking inward to see how they can set up their workplace to offer flexibility, while not compromising on productivity and workplace culture.
Types of flexible work
Flexible work arrangements involve an agreement between an employer and their employees to alter their traditional working arrangements to better suit their needs. These arrangements include:
- changing where employees work;
- compressed work weeks (e.g. compressing a typical 5 day, 40 hour week to 10 hours per day over 4 days);
- flexi-time (working approved overtime and then later taking that time off); or
- altering traditional start and finish times (saying goodbye to the traditional 9 ‘til 5).
Flexible work arrangements may be specifically designed to meet the requirements of one employee, or may involve a policy which offers flexible working arrangements for all employees. Hybrid workplaces, which involve a combination of staff working from home and working in the office, are becoming increasingly popular, and can be implemented as an organisation’s ‘new normal’.
Benefits to employees
In a recent survey examining the impact of COVID-19 on Australians, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that more than half of those surveyed either wanted to retain the same working from home arrangements or wanted to increase the time they spent working from home.
Employees report greater job satisfaction when they can work flexibly. Having the option to be at home to accept deliveries or meet tradespeople means that employees don’t have to feel bad for asking for a morning off – they just work from home that day, or start a little later. Working from home cuts out commute time and increases time to do the basics, like put on a load of washing!
It’s also great for staff members who have caring commitments. Staff can collect their children from school or day care and then log on later that day to finish off what they were working on, instead of leaving it for the following day. They can get their work done over fewer days so they don’t need to find a day care placement for the whole week.
Benefits to employers
The digitisation of work and the advent of ‘working anywhere’ have presented opportunities for employers to save costs and increase efficiency. Many employers are already set up for flexible work as they have embraced advancements in technology by implementing paperless systems and digitising their transactions (here’s looking at you, DocuSign). The rise of the Zoom meeting permits scheduling multiple meetings without needing to move from your chair.
Staff generally report greater wellbeing and productivity, which increases job satisfaction and fulfilment. Employee satisfaction leads to positive workplace culture, increased productivity, and lower staff turnover.
Offering flexible working arrangements can also help you attract and retain good employees. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency considers flexible working arrangements to be a key factor to address the disparity in the number of women in leadership positions.
Practical tips for optimizing flexible work arrangements
Whilst flexible work brings many benefits, it isn’t advisable to take a set and forget approach to implementation. In order to optimize your flexible work arrangements and minimize the risk of a legal claim, employers should carefully consider the following issues:
- Working from home can be isolating without those everyday encounters in the office. It’s important to schedule regular virtual or phone meetings to maintain positive relationships and keep the communication channels open with employees. This can include embracing the ‘hybrid meeting’ where some team members dial in virtually to join those team members who are in the office.
- Although your employees might be working from home, you still have a duty of care to provide a safe workplace. You need to update your flexible work / workplace health and safety policies and procedures to address your new arrangements, and take steps to ensure that each employee’s work from home.
- Do you have sufficient safeguards in place to protect confidential information and keep data safe? A consideration of your privacy obligations should also be evident in your flexible workplace policy.
- Recordkeeping obligations continue to apply under the Fair Work Act (Cth) and Fair Work Regulations 2009 (Cth). This means that an employer is still required to keep records of employees working outside the spread of ordinary hours under an applicable modern award or Enterprise Agreement. If later an employee alleges underpayment of overtime entitlements, and the employer does not have adequate records, section 557C of the Fair Work Act places the burden on the employer to disprove the allegation (no matter how far-fetched the initial allegation).
- Consider how you can demonstrate that your business’ flexible work model complies with minimum entitlements owed to employees under their award, enterprise agreement or the National Employment Standards.
- Consider what equipment your staff need to work from home and keep a log of it,
- Ensure that flexible workplace arrangements do not indirectly discriminate against your employees. If you are looking at a shared workplace for those days in the office, are you able to make reasonable accommodations for employees who have a disability or family responsibilities? You need to ensure that your employees are not discouraged from seeking accommodations for disabilities and that these issues are discussed openly and without judgment.
What should employers do now?
- Take a good look at your workplace. What do you really need to run it efficiently?
- Prepare a detailed flexible working policy, clearly communicate that policy to your staff and ask for their feedback. Consider what limits there should be on flexibility. Being open and collaborative with your team will make it easier to enforce your policy down the track.
- Implement a policy on a trial basis to allow you to tweak it as necessary.
- Walk the walk – leaders in your workplace should be role models who personally embrace flexible work. Managers should speak positively about flexible work arrangements, clearly communicate their expectations, and show trust in their employees.
How we can help
If you’re considering changes to your operations to improve flexibility, or simply want to ensure that you’re existing arrangements are compliant, our workplace relations experts have you covered. We can also assist you with reviewing the impact your flexible work arrangements might have on your compliance with legal obligations in relation to recordkeeping, work health and safety and equal opportunity laws.
Flexible work arrangements might also have you considering the way you engage future staff. For more information on the impact of flexible workplaces on the classic ‘are they an employee or a contractor’ quandary, check out our upcoming webinar on 22 June 2021 – ‘Independent Contractors: Balancing compliance, cost and flexibility’.
For more information or expert advice, please do not hesitate to contact us.
 See ABS statistics – https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/people-and-communities/household-impacts-covid-19-survey/feb-2021#work-from-home
 See https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/people-and-communities/household-impacts-covid-19-survey/feb-2021#work-from-home
 ABS – APS Employee Census 2021
 See Workplace Gender Equality Agency https://www.wgea.gov.au/flexible-work
 Black Dog Institute: https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/news/working-from-home-a-checklist-to-support-your-mental-health-during-coronavirus/