Adopting a more “flexible” attitude
Flexible work arrangements. It certainly sounds good. Many Australian parents were overjoyed to learn that the government was introducing new laws in January this year to help them balance their work and family commitments.
The question is, six months after the introduction of the ten National Employment Standards, has anything really changed?
Of particular importance to parents was the law allowing them to legally request flexible work arrangements if they had a child under school age.
In essence, flexibility means being adaptable. Can a workplace adapt to having an employee work longer hours across three days instead of a five-day week? Or work from home? Or begin and finish work earlier? Flexibility should basically translate to less stress for working parents.
The employment standard relating to flexible work arrangements states that employees have a “right to request”. Translation: you’re allowed to ask. It doesn’t guarantee your request will be accepted though. Employers are perfectly within their rights to refuse an “unreasonable” request.
The test is whether or not the productivity of the business will be negatively affected by a change in your work arrangements. Will it cost your employer money? Will the work still get done on time? Will the needs of clients still be accommodated?
The trick is balancing the needs of the employer with the needs of the worker. If the situation can work for both, the benefits would seem clear; loyal workers who are less stressed and therefore more productive. A saving for the employer on recruitment and training costs because they retain experienced staff.
For any new arrangement to work requires some effort of course, which can be particularly difficult for small businesses that don’t have a human resources department to handle administrative changes.
By law, employers must give careful consideration to any request for work flexibility and respond in writing within 21 days, providing a clear business reason for their decision. Fair Work Australia can step in to mediate if an employee feels that a “reasonable” request has been refused, but they can’t force an employer to accept an employee’s request.
In the UK, where the “right to request” was introduced in 2003, research has shown that many parents are still not aware they can request work flexibility.
Education would seem critical if the workplace culture in Australia is to change.
Employers need to promote flexibility and show they are prepared to give it a go if the conditions are right. And workers need to be realistic in their requests. Employers will be far more likely to accept a request that has considered the needs of the business and the impact any changes will have. A specific form provided to employees could help them plan a successful work arrangement that balances everyone’s needs.