Flexible work can lead to flexible thought – OPINION

Dr Sue Williamson

We are witnessing a quiet revolution in how we work. The impact of technology on our lives is well documented, showing that while technology enables increased flexibility, there are also negative impacts on our lives.

Always-on technology means a work-to-life spillover. We know that checking emails before bed is a surefire way to not get a good night’s sleep.

But for all the negatives associated with our 24/7 working style, a range of innovations are also occurring. Many public sector agencies are embracing new ways of working.

Some are implementing activity-based working, which transforms the physical office space so that employees don’t own a desk. They work in purpose-built spaces designed around discrete activities, such as meetings, brainstorming, engaging in team-work, or working quietly on their own.

The results on activity-based working are mixed. New research shows that while this form of working can increase productivity and creativity, it can also result in greater distrust, increased isolation, and a negative impact on relationships between colleagues.

An aim of activity based working is not only to deliver organisational benefits, but to also encourage a more flexible way of working. An increased emphasis on flexible workspaces may translate into an increased emphasis on all forms of flexibility, including flexible working arrangements, which are essential to progress gender equality.

Organisations are also starting to talk about mainstreaming flexibility, a concept which has been given impetus by the Diversity Council of Australia.

Mainstreaming flexibility is similar to ‘all roles flex’, where jobs are considered to be flexible by default. Over half of the Australian Public Service  departments have committed to implementing all roles flex, so this concept is gaining currency.

Mainstreaming flexibility means that a different approach is adopted towards flexibility. This approach is not reliant on an individual requesting flexible working arrangements, but has the whole team take responsibility for ensuring a flexible working environment.

While jobs are made up of discrete tasks and responsibilities, they are also designed so that team members shadow and can fill in for each other. This is similar to a Results Only Working Environment (ROWE), an American concept where the focus is on outcomes, rather than on process or where, when or how people work.

Recently, I spoke at a public service function where flexibility was linked with health. Some studies show that workplace flexibility can have positive impacts on employees’ mental and physical health.

Researchers have found that a ROWE resulted in employees enjoying an extra hour’s sleep per week night. They exercise more and have an increased sense of well-being. The health benefits also positively impacted on workplaces, with reduced presenteeism, meaning that workers did not come to work when they were sick.

Finally, flexibility of thought is also an area gaining attention. As part of my research into the roles of diversity consultants, one consultant explained that flexibility of thought can lead to more inclusive organisations.

Flexibility of thought enables employees to embrace diversity in all its forms, whether it be grounded in race, gender, ability, sexuality or other identities. ‘Flexibility of thought’ has, however, also been criticised for diluting differences between employees and ignoring structural discrimination. The argument that a group of middle-class white men can represent any form of diversity is contentious.

The research and practice on flexibility, diversity and gender continues to develop apace, accompanied by innovative practices. The Australian Public Service is part of this development, and further monitoring will reveal which practices gain traction to result in more equitable, productive, and creative working environments.

Dr Sue Williamson is Senior Lecturer, Human Resource Management at the School of Business, UNSW Canberra. She can be reached at s.williamson@adfa.edu.au. This article is an edited excerpt of her talk at the Festival of Ambitious Ideas on 2 November.

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