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Workplace Flexibility in Australia: Trends and Useful Tips

Hosted by: IBM

In conjunction with IBM, ChapmanCG had the pleasure of hosting 40 HR Leaders, as part of our ongoing HR Networking series, in Sydney on Friday 25th September. Attendees from a number of organisations including Avaya, Boehringer Ingelheim, Deloitte, Groupon, Jurlique, Lend Lease, Macquarie Bank, Pitney Bowes, SAP, St George Bank, Sydney Airports, Telstra, Unilever, Veda and Westpac, participated in the discussion which explored two main themes: agile work environments and flexible working arrangements.

In the 20th Century, the role of the individual employee was simply to follow the instructions laid out by the organisation. Corporations defined how the individual was to fit in and comply. In contrast, today it’s all about how organisations adapt to the individual and how companies can develop the individual’s talents and creativity more rapidly. This challenges many of the deeply ingrained assumptions in traditional management thinking. 1

For most organisations flexible working arrangements have become a given, rather than a ‘nice to have’ or an exception. In spite of this, Australians are working longer hours than ever before whilst Sweden, for example, has recently moved to a six-hour workday. The Swedish claim there has been no decrease in productivity, by virtue of people being happier and more rested. 2

Our Sydney discussion group uncovered many beneficial tips, as well as some interesting learnings regarding workplace flexibility, the highlights of which follow.

Agile Workspaces

Many companies have moved to ‘agile workspaces’ to foster greater collaboration and creativity and to provide services to clients in a more holistic, nimble way. In the case of IBM, the company made the move to purpose-built premises and people are encouraged to work from home or at the client site for part of the week. The newly configured office space offers a range of work-spaces to suit different styles of work, as detailed below:

  • Interactive Zones – noisy collaborative, open plan areas
  • Scrum Rooms – for stand up, high energy meetings that usually involve brainstorming and writing ideas on ceiling to floor glass walls
  • Focus Areas – desk areas for quieter work

Whilst it is difficult to measure, organisations with this type of office environment have generally reported a greater sense of collaboration, creativity and freedom.

Key Learnings:

  • The group agreed that it is very important to support managers and employees with up-skilling in the use of the technology that supports agile and virtual working. ‘Drop-in IT Clinics’ and roving ‘Connect Crews’ (tech experts in orange t-shirts ) were a successful way of facilitating on-the-spot training needs.
  • In some instances, engagement is higher amongst employees who work in the office environment than those working at home or client premises.
  • The question came up as to whether there is a loss of ‘environmental productivity’ when knowledge workers are not in the same physical workspace as colleagues? There is a need for organisations to create a compelling reason for people to come into the office to encourage collaboration with colleagues.
  • Communication is a very important aspect of successful agile and virtual working. Common communication platforms for meaningful group and one-on—one communication, such as the social networking platform Yammer, are vital for successful collaboration and engagement of virtual employees.

Creative Workspace or Different Planet?!

Care needs to be taken not to over- rotate the office environment into something inauthentic. One HR Leader pointed out that a new purpose built facility, “became somewhat like working on another planet. Services were available on-site from dry cleaning, cafes and a supermarket, to a gymnasium and some people felt a little caged. The lily ponds, ambient music and murals were gorgeous but it didn’t feel real. We want to belong to our environment more naturally because that’s when we’re at our most creative.”

Flexible Work Arrangements

The benefits of collaborating with employees to design and develop the optimal workplace flexibility were widely accepted. These include increased engagement, trust and respect; better workplace culture; and access to a broader talent pool.

Key Learnings:

  • Types of Flexible Working: Many large organisations have now announced that many or all roles are flexible. Similarly many start-ups and tech companies have always been this way. Part-time, compressed weeks (doing five days in three), late starts/early finishes or working from home are some of the most common flexible arrangements. To a large degree the move to full flexibility has been ‘demand driven’ by employees, particularly Millennials and those in the role of carer. Some organisations have introduced carer’s leave, grandparent’s leave and wellbeing leave. Companies such as Virgin and GE offer unlimited vacation leave. Others are experimenting with Birthday Leave and ‘Summer Hours’ such as finishing work at 2pm on Fridays during summer.
  • Millennials: An interesting demographic point came up regarding ‘early Millennials’ who often hold up to four jobs at once. For example, one might work for a big company, then in their ‘downtime’ from that job may be helping a friend build an App. They may also be involved in volunteer work for a cause they believe in strongly and work part-time elsewhere on weekends. Having seen the consequences of the GFC and with a high awareness of climate change and social justice, Millennials generally have a strong social conscience and a low level of trust for corporate institutions. As such they have a notable preference for flexible work arrangements.
  • The Need for a New Aged Inclusive Leader: Flexible working poses a challenge for leadership capability. At a cultural level, many of the leaders who have worked in the traditional way for many years, really struggle with the notion of flexibility. Personality style and those with issues of empowerment and trust contribute to an individual’s resistance. It can also create problems when flexibility is inconsistently applied across the organisation and is dependent on a manager’s personal philosophy. The most successful leaders of the future will trust, empower and measure based on results not effort/input.
  • Flexible Employees ‘Go The Extra Mile’: Has Employee Engagement increased but paradoxically work/life balance decreased? It would seem that truly engaged employees don’t leave the job behind when they are at home or on their non-work day. Many employees choose to carry their current projects with them 24/7, so they can integrate work/life effectively — they make the choices to suit them, and to meet their work and personal commitments. Individuals need to set their own boundaries carefully.
  • The Hidden Cost of Flexibility: Often the debate has not centred around productivity, but rather the affordability of flexibility. Flexibility doesn’t appear to cost anything on the face of it, assuming the employee population achieves the necessary output. However, large organisations are finding that they are spending a lot more money than anticipated on developing leaders and managers to lead in an effective, consistent and fair way in the high-tech, agile working landscape.

What Action Should HR Take?

HR must do more than just formulate policy responses. HR needs to proactively lead the charge on cultural change towards greater inclusiveness by adjusting performance management and talent development systems, reward and re
cognition programmes and organisational capability frameworks to cater for this shift towards flexible working. It has become about providing individuals with the power to connect and achieve their potential.

HR has an important role to play in providing greater enablement for leaders on how to understand the output and contribution of flexible workers. We need to allow an individual to work out how to be their most effective. As Lisa Christy from SAP said, “Having the sounds of children or dogs barking in the background on a conference call humanises work and connects us on a different level. HR needs to ‘call out’ the misconceptions that some people have about flexible working and help the culture move along.”

We’d like to thank Warwick Hall, People and Change Consultant at IBM, Paul Harvey, HR Director at St George Bank and Lisa Christy, HR Director Australia/NZ at SAP for sharing their experiences with the group.

1 By John Tropea in his article “The future of work is to freelance within an organisation — choose your task, assemble to work, then dissolve”

2 “Sweden is moving towards a six hour working day as Australia’s hours increase” by Chloe Booker Article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 1/10/2015


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Matthew Chapman
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Matthew Chapman
Global Management

Matthew Chapman


Matthew (Matt) Chapman is the Founder of ChapmanCG.

He has also created the Thrive HR Exchange, a global community platform for people leaders and HR professionals to find and exchange inspiration, ideas and insights. Discover some of his interviews with HR leaders here.

Matt has a Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting and Business Law from the University of New South Wales, Australia. He is a Singapore Citizen and divides his time between Asia Pacific, the Americas and EMEA.

Matt is a wellness, self-improvement and fitness addict. He has completed six desert, 250km ultra-marathons in Chile, China, Egypt, Antarctica, Namibia and Madagascar.

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Fiona Jury
Fiona Jury

Senior Director, Global Research and Market Intelligence

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Fiona Jury
Consulting Team

Fiona Jury

Senior Director, Global Research and Market Intelligence

Fiona Jury is the Senior Director, Global Research and Market Intelligence at ChapmanCG. She is passionate about excellence in search delivery and leads ChapmanCG’s global research and market intelligence team in identifying top-quality HR talent.

Fiona’s executive search and recruitment career spans over 20 years, working across multiple markets including Asia Pacific, the United States, the Middle East and Australia/New Zealand. A search consultant at heart, Fiona understands the unique needs of clients. During her time with ChapmanCG, Fiona has delivered on CHRO, Global HR Director, Regional HR Director, Global Talent Head, Global Head of Reward and many other high impact searches.

Prior to joining ChapmanCG, Fiona held a variety of leadership and senior consulting roles at Talent2 and at Morgan & Banks/TMP. She possesses broad industry experience across pharmaceuticals, FMCG, financial services, media, professional services and IT & Telecommunications.

Fiona originally qualified as a Chartered Accountant and spent her early career with Coopers & Lybrand. She holds a Bachelor of Economics (Accounting) from Monash University in Melbourne. Outside of work, Fiona enjoys spending time with family and her three children. She enjoys all sports and is fascinated by human ingenuity and positive psychology.