Public sector failing to implement flexible work practices

By Adam Coleman

A slavish devotion to traditional workplace ‘culture’ has many public sector organisations failing to implement flexible work policies that could help attract the best staff, lower staff turnover and increase productivity, according to new research.

Professor Lisa Bradley, head of the School of Management at Queensland’s University of Technology (QUT) has extensively investigated the use of flexible work practices in both the public sector and in the construction industry.

She said that while the public sector had policies and provisions available “on the books”, most of them sit idly in policy documents with employees too scared to apply them for fear of attracting disapproval from employers or co-workers.

“The main issue we had within the government agencies was that even though the policies and provisions were there people still weren’t using them at the very high levels,” she told GovernmentNews.

“Flexible work options such as job sharing, working from home, early-start, early-finish, and concertinaed four-day working weeks are often on the books somewhere but rarely enjoyed.”

Professor Bradley suggests there is an opportunity for employers that “make it okay” in the workplace culture to call upon flexible work policies.
“Our research has shown that when flexible work options are supported in the workplace it helps organisations attract the best staff and it lowers staff turnover and absenteeism when workers are able to structure their work time according to their circumstances.”
Business approach
RMIT University senior research fellow, Dr Iain Campbell is doubtful that in the current economic climate there is a business case for the introduction of flexible work policies.

He suggested that if there were a case “they would have been introduced pretty widely in the workforce by now”.

“I’m suggesting there are more powerful barriers to the introduction of flexible work policies than a traditional work culture,” he said.

“I think at the moment employers are happy with high levels of attrition. They are not convinced that it is to their advantage to introduce these kinds of practises.

“We have done some classic research in this area with law firms looking and whether they were retaining their best employees by introducing flexible work policies. There is no sign at all of flexible work practises being introduced.”

Brisbane City Council is one council that has adopted several flexible work initiatives to align its mature age workforce with its business objectives.

More than 17 per cent of council’s workforce is aged 55-plus and to prevent the haemorrhaging of skilled labour the council introduced a number of alternative work options.

Case study: Brisbane
Chief Human Resources Manager at Brisbane City Council, Ian Niven said the policies have led to a marked decrease in separation rates among mature-aged staff.
“All of the retention and attraction initiatives that have been introduced are not simply based on providing ‘quick fixes’, but are focused on cultural shifts in the hardwired thinking that is traditionally associated with working arrangements and conditions,” he said.
 Professor Bradley’s research challenges a traditional workplace mindset among managers that the amount of time an employee spends at work is an indicator of their performance.
“It obviously is not. What we should be focusing on is what the person is actually achieving without necessarily worrying when or where they are actually getting those achievements.
“[The employer] thinks that if they are sitting down the corridor then they have a higher level of control over what that person does. That doesn’t really seem to be the case. We know that people can be sitting at there desks tapping away at their computer and it might be nothing to do with work.”

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