The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way many Australians look at their work life.
And although it has not been the most productive period for many, especially those with caring responsibilities, there is no doubt it has triggered a shift in our collective thinking. It’s shifted the way we think about working and has brought to light the idea that work doesn’t have to be a place we go, but something we do.
For Kristen Hilton, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) Commissioner, there’s two side of the coin to the recent increase in flexible working arrangements we’ve seen since the pandemic began.
On the one hand, COVID-19 has forced us to be innovative, and some employers are saying we won’t go back to how it used to be. And that’s great for those who would like to see their work life become more flexible, whether that means working remotely or mixing up days spent in the office and at home.
But on the other hand, we are in this highly stressful period of economic downturn.
“I’m nervous women will feel forced to accept conditions that they would’ve said no to 18 months ago,” Hilton told Women’s Agenda’s founding editor Angela Priestley earlier this week, in a webinar about flexible work.
Hilton says there’s also been a drop of women looking for work during this period. And with new changes from the federal government that has brought about the premature end to free childcare, the situation has suddenly become even more difficult for women.
Hilton advises that for women who need flexible working arrangements, it’s important to be confident in negotiations with employers from the very start.
“Don’t think you have to prove your value first when you start a job and then later ask to work flexibly,” she said. “It often means you will end up working five days but being paid for four.”
And flexible work doesn’t just mean working from home, according to Hilton. Flexible working arrangements encompass a broad range of situations, including working part time or changing the layout of your working week. It includes job-sharing arrangements and a mix of working from home and the office.
For employers, Hilton says a shift in the way we think about productivity is needed to get the most out of flexible working arrangements and trust in employees is essential.
The idea of “clocking in and clocking off” can prohibit workplaces from functioning at their most productive.
“We need to start moving away from the idea that being at work from 9-5 means you are the most productive worker,” she said. “Some of the most productive and engaged people are the ones working in a part time capacity.”
The best way to attract more women into the workforce is by increasing the availability of flexible working arrangements. It’s reality that’s been highlighted by Victoria Police, who have worked with the VEOHRC for a number of years around different gender equality initiatives.
Hilton says the key advice the VEOHRC gave to Victoria Police to attract more women, was about implementing strategies that helped to create a less rigid workplace. And it worked.
In the past 18 months, the uptake of flexible work at Victoria Police has increased 20 per cent – and the best part of the story is that 11 per cent of those people are men.
It’s a significant achievement for the organisation, who are seemingly bucking a trend that sees more men than women denied flexible working arrangements. In fact, research suggests men have their requests for flexible arrangements denied twice as often as women.
Hilton says it’s because there’s still a lot of stigma attached to flexible work.
“It’s accepted that many women might want to work flexibly and that is often accommodated by companies and organisations, but for men, it’s different.”
For people working in any industry, an uptake in flexible working arrangements will often come down to the conversation an employee will have with their manager.
“It can be a challenging conversation for an employee to have,” Hilton says. “But the idea is we need to try to separate performance from flexible work.”
“It’s about producing certain content and having an agreement about what needs to get done.”
“Having open conversations is the key to how we get to that point.”
Watch our recent chat with Kristen below: