COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the way we work. What was previously deemed too hard, too expensive, or too inconvenient for many organsiations has now become the ‘new normal’, with more people working from home than ever before.
It is predicted that workplaces will never be the same again, but there is a distinction between working remotely and working flexibly that some employers fail to see.
Many women and men don’t conform to the traditional model of a full-time worker; they have other priorities and aspirations, such as pursuing additional study, approaching retirement or being engaged parents. Working from home may help some people meet those priorities, but it is just one version of flexible working. Other examples of how flexibility can work include flex time, where employees work a full day, but vary their working hours; reduced hours and part time roles; compressed work weeks; gradual retirement; and access to study leave.
While many organisations have long trumpeted the benefits of flexible working arrangements, others have resisted the arguments that point to increased productivity, better staff engagement and retention. In the current environment, many such organisations were forced to develop policies on the run, or not at all.
Despite widespread remote working, COVID-19 has in fact exposed the inherent inflexibility of many workplaces, says Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton.
“According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, in Australia, women spend 64.4% of their average working hours each week on unpaid care work compared to 36.1% for men. Just because you are working from home doesn’t mean you are working flexibly, COVID-19 has shown us that some workplaces have not accommodated the needs of people with caring responsibilities.
“Businesses that make adjustments to accommodate those responsibilities, by not scheduling 8am meetings, or working around school hours, can still manage to run a successful business and protect the mental health of their employees who may be feeling very stressed by additional work loads,” says Hilton.
Under the federal Fair Work Act, some employees have the right to request flexible work arrangements. In addition, under the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act, employers have an obligation to accommodate an employee’s parental or caring responsibilities unless it would be unreasonable. Employers must consider the request and determine if it would be practical to implement it; they can’t just deny it.
Women spend 64.4% of their average working hours each week on unpaid care work compared to 36.1% for menWorkplace Gender Equality Agency
“Employers need to weigh up a range of factors when they make this assessment, such as the nature of the business, the employee’s role, what arrangements the employee has requested and how this would fit with their role, they need to have the conversation rather than flat out refusing a request,” says Hilton.
The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission received almost 500 workplace related enquiries during the COVID-19 period to date. These have ranged from men being denied family leave, refusing people the right to work from home so they can care for children and reducing people’s hours at work who have caring responsibilities.
“Access to flexible work is an issue that has emerged as a priority during the pandemic, unfortunately, we’ve heard from many people who have been denied the conversation to trial new arrangements,” says Hilton.
“We know this is impacting a lot of men and women, who have now had to bear the extra responsibility for home schooling and other caring responsibilities. The majority of this responsibility falls to women and some may face pressure from their employers to reduce their hours so they can accommodate those caring responsibilities, which will impact their superannuation, redundancy entitlements and pay equity, and could have knock-on effects for their career progression.”
In addition to the financial implications, there is also a toll on mental health. A national poll by Newgate Research found that women have expressed feeling increased personal and professional pressure during COVID-19, and are carrying a ‘triple load’ during the crisis, which includes paid work, care work, and the mental labour of worrying.
Debra Brodowski is the National Manager of Psychological Services at the Centre for Corporate Health and works with organisations to address complex mental health and wellbeing issues. As businesses prepare to reopen workplaces, she says it is important for organisations to address the mental health concerns of their staff.
“We’ve got a real opportunity now to manage this in a structured and supportive manner, so that we’re not activating people’s stress responses, and exacerbating any potential anxiety for people,” she says.
“Just having a blunted response and calling people back to the office and telling them all roles are office based, despite people performing their job successfully at home during this period, may actually lead to an increase in anxiety. We can do it in such a manner that people’s fears and concerns about working back in the office can be addressed in a safe and supportive way.”
Asking people what has worked for them and finding out the challenges people have faced, as well as explaining clearly what the organisation is looking for, will help trial new policies and flexible working arrangements for the future, says Hilton.
“We’ve been catapulted a decade into the future of flexible working arrangements through this experience and we’ve seen how many people can flourish when they are afforded some flexibility in their working day,” she says. “We must learn from it and understand how great the benefits can be for workplaces to accommodate individual requests for flexible work. Those workplaces that don’t will be left behind.”
This piece was produced in partnership with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.
Anyone who has experienced discrimination on the basis of parental or caring responsibilities or because of their sex can contact the Victorian Human Rights Commission on 1300 292 153 or the Australian Human Rights Commission on 1300 656 419.