Flexibility a positive if not “stretched”
By Louise White
Flexible working is a term often used these days and can relate to home based work or flexible hours designed to help the employee avoid long commutes or traffic jams or to accommodate family responsibilities.
However, some experts warn that flexible working options can be tough on some businesses - particularly small business.
``I believe that flexibility can sometimes stretch too far and break a business,'' managing director of Evergreen Advertising and Marketing Gill Walker says.
``Over the past 10 years I have embraced the notion of flexibility - it sounded like the mantra to solve all problems. As a medium-sized ad agency I have seen the positives and negatives firsthand.''
Evergreen is a full-service advertising, marketing and accredited media agency.
``I would comfortably say that flexibility can add at least 20 per cent to your bottom line and 20 per cent extra to a manager's time,'' she says.
``People that job share or work part-time often means that tasks are recapped and repeated. There is the hand-over talkfest and the catch-up with office gossip repeated as the flexible ones don't want to miss out when they arrive at their destined time.
``Then there is the disappointment that when they do miss out on something happening in the office as it happened on the day they weren't there, it's somehow some else's fault and in turn you have morale issues.
``Flexibility on the client side, working on a project with deadline invariably means a stalemate in decision making: `Let's wait until Judy is back and her opinion is important.' So if people job share, or work part-time add 30 per cent extra time into your project management fees for having to repeat, recap the brief.''
But the reality is that flexible working is here to stay. Big companies are taking up to 20 per cent less office space in the city when renting new premises because they are accounting for that portion of the workforce working elsewhere on any given day.
For smaller companies, however, having staff there all the time to help run the business and undertake a wider range of activities is essential, particularly in service industries where customers want answers immediately or otherwise they will go elsewhere to find what they are looking for.
``We have had a lot of up-and-down situations regarding creating a flexible workforce,'' chief executive of Bennetts Boots Amanda Tallent says.
``New to being the boss and the retail industry we based our human resources strategy on the thing we liked in a boss. It soon became apparent what we like doesn't work unless you have a staff member who is dedicated and passionate about the business as we are.''
Bennetts Boots sells Australian-owned and designed broader-sized boots in retail outlets across Australia and online.
``We initially hired on a faith system with minimal input into what hours were worked as long as the work was done,'' Ms Tallent says. ``We did this with the two key management employees.
``It took a few months but we worked out that one employee was not good at self-management and started to give her training in this area. Unfortunately, even with training it didn't work out.
``The second employee seemed to work very well under the limited restrictions and flexibility to come and go around her family needs and the needs of the business. It wasn't until about a year and a half in that she started to take more time off than she had in lieu. This inspired me to implement a time-activity report, but it didn't seem to work and brought up more issues, including the time wasted completing forms every week,'' Ms Tallent says.
As a result Ms Tallent brought all work back to the office and all work completed outside the office to be documented. For all future workers Bennetts Boots has decided that they will only be paid for time spent in the store.
``Overall I think you really need to know your employee, the output and results they should be hitting before putting them on a flexible work arrangement,'' Ms Tallent says.
Some small companies can accommodate flexible working better than others. At VetShopAustralia, the company attempts to accommodate its staff no matter what the situation.
``We offer flexible work options for our staff,'' VetShopAustralia director Steven Perissinotto says.
“These are individually negotiated with each staff member, but the most popular one is the flexible start and finish times usually arranged to fit in with being a working mum.”
``But we also have staff who work some days remotely and-or work from home - we even had a staff member work while travelling around Europe on holidays a few years ago, which allowed him to stay away longer.
``One of the things that makes us different from other employers is our flexibility in terms of sick or careers leave is that under our pet-friendly workplace policy, staff can take leave to care for a sick or pregnant pet.''
Even Walker has also seen the positive sides of flexible working.
``Allowing people to work from home mid-week, this makes others who are stuck at the office feel better, because they aren't perceived as just having a long weekend,'' she says.
``I also believe you should limit working from home to one day at a time if possible. For an office to have a vibe you have to see people.
``If people work part-time you must have one day that the entire team is in. This way you can have a catch-up meeting and share important information.
``Lastly and very important with the increase of baby boomers working companies must plan to provide the same flexibility to staff with elderly parents as they would to staff with children.''
The Australian, February 2012.