Taking parental leave is a huge milestone for many people. Every person’s story is different, and even if we set aside the important and sometimes complex stories about conception, adoption, surrogacy, pregnancy health, and so on, the challenges around parental leave itself can be vast…Read More
The comment left me gobsmacked. Here was a business who has 1) been actively progressing the diversity and inclusion agenda for years, 2) has a variety of award-winning initiatives 3) have leaders actively driving the D&I agenda and for all of these reasons are 4) widely recognised as an industry leader. The overwhelming thought that rang out in my mind was this: if the best in the business are still getting push back at nearly every turn, what hope is there for those of us still laying foundations?Read More
Written by Darren Hooper
Consider these fictional employees:
Meredith - an ER Nurse
Meredith works is an ER nurse. She works a 24/7 roster and her start and finish times are set so as to ensure hand-over between shifts. She can’t choose the days she is rostered to work or her start and finish times. She also can’t change her work location she needs be at the hospital as this is where the patients are and the equipment too.
The hospital does allow shift swapping by agreement. Sometimes Meredith uses this arrangement to participate in sports carnivals.
Todd – a business analyst
Todd’s works in Brisbane for a professional service company. He keeps general business hours, but unless there is an early meeting or a late meeting he has no set time he is expected at work.
With a new baby on the way, Todd wants to be in the office only 3 days a week. He hopes to go part-time four days a week and work one of his four days per week from home.
Todd’s manager doesn’t support employees working from home but was happy to approve him moving to either three or four days a week part-time.
Who is working flexibly? A traditional binary analysis of flexible work
Meredith is not on flexible work arrangements. Perhaps you could even say that her role is not suited to flexible work arrangements. Whereas Todd is working flexible work arrangements because he is working part-time. This would mean a cross against Meredith’s employer and tick for Todd’s employer.
But I think this would be entirely wrong.
Who is working as flexibly as possible?
Within strict operational constraints, Meredith’s employer appears to be as close to flexible as possible. Likely Meredith understands the constraints on her position and has high levels of satisfaction with the flexibility options within her role. If Meredith wanted more flexibility she might change roles, but she is hardly likely to change employers within her industry as they would face the same restrictions.
Notwithstanding the likely perspective of Todd's employer that further flexibility would be all too hard, his workplace arrangements appear to be much further away from the most flexible potential outcome he could achieve. Likely Todd is frustrated with the support he has received from his employer. He would likely consider alternative employers if they could better meet his flexibility needs.
Maximum Potential Flexibility
Maximum potential flexibility is a way at looking at workplace flexibility from the reality that workplace flexibility is not the binary concept we conceive it to be. It starts with the realisation that all roles contain some degree of flexibility as well as the fact that all roles have elements that are unchangeable. If we accept all roles are already somewhat flexible, we are forced to think beyond the already largely aspirational ‘all roles flex’. The challenge becomes ‘All roles as flex as they can be’.
In this way, every role is continually evaluated to extent to answer a question like this: “Do we provide the maximum work-life balance available in this role without doing harm to cost, productivity and customer service?”
When the answer to that is “yes”, the result is “Maximum potential flexibility”; for now…
Why change how we look at flexibility?
With not enough being done to achieve flexibility within existing paradigms, why is it worthwhile trying to shift to new more challenging paradigms? I contend our existing paradigms, as much as outmoded thinking or unconscious bias, are what is holding us back from greater workplace flexibility.
Adopting a maximum potential flexibility mindset means changing the way we think about flexibility so we can change our mindset, reorient our goals and modify our approach. This approach acknowledges that today’s potential may be improved tomorrow with technology and process improvements. Importantly, this approach also acknowledges the practical limitations inherent in some roles.
If flexibility is no longer a binary proposition it is replaced with an iterative journey. When managers stop thinking about flexibility regimes and employee requests in terms of black hats and white hats, they may realise they are already pretty good at this stuff. With acknowledgement for existing approaches and the safety net that flexibility is still achievable even when bounded by practicality, openness to ideas can be generated.
What workplace flexibility policies would look like if we sought maximum potential flexibility?
If we adopt a maximum potential flexibility mindset we would change our flexibility policy away from managing the movement from non-flexible to flexible to one in which we describe the process that embeds ongoing dialogue and exploration of alternative.
We would no longer talk about changing to requesting flexible work arrangements as this happens once and in one way. Instead we build process to capture the outcomes of change on top of previous changes. We would adopt learnings and take advantage of opportunities. A maximum potential flexibility approach would also move away from models of employee request and management response in respect to initiating flexible workplace changes. [as1912] We would see management equally driving the change process and suggesting workplace flexibility.
For instance, in Todd’s example, the flexibility conversation would not end with Todd working part-time. Todd and his manage would be expected to see what more could be done to achieve increased flexibility in the way he performs his role. Perhaps this would be a standing item for discussion in annual performance reviews. Alongside development needs there could the question on flexibility opportunities.
At Meredith’s workplace, a commitment to maximum potential flexibility might mean taking a systems based approach. For instance her employer may look at what systems are in place to make shift swapping more efficient this could include technology solutions as well as looking at how pay and entitlements make obstruct or encourage shift swapping.
The challenge from here
If Pablo Picasso warned us never to let a dichotomy rule our lives, he would no doubt have warned us doubly about the dangers of false dichotomies. Arrangements aren’t flexible or inflexible, but we define them in this simple way. When we do, we are being inflexible – in our thinking. To be so inflexible on the subject of workplace flexibility is not just ironic, it is undermining. It takes away the middle ground, and with it a raft of options and opportunities.
A more nuanced approach has challenges in terms of how we measure our progress, hold leaders to account and measure value. These challenges can be overcome though through richer and more real engagement with our work force.
Written by Andrea Smith
As a diversity practitioner, one question that’s long captivated my interest is this: how do you create a diversity advocate?
I’m not talking about those people who naturally find their way to advocacy, too often as a result of a firsthand experience as part of the out-group. I’m talking about how you win the hearts and minds of people who don’t see the value of diversity and inclusion.
We’ve all worked with them at some point; leaders who think D&I is a social agenda, a ‘nice to have’ or worst of all - a waste of time and resources.
So how do you change their view?
Certainly, the business case for diversity and inclusion should factor into the conversation at some point. Conclusive organisational data goes a way to winning minds... but rarely hearts. Compelling your audience to not only believe, but actively lead, takes something extra.
When it comes to success stories, what better example to draw upon than our newly appointed Australian of the Year, Lieutenant General David Morrison. With more than thirty years of service in arguably one of the most ‘blokey’ organisational cultures in Australia, when Morrison took the helm as Chief of Army, gender advocacy was not high on the ADF agenda. After the 2011 ‘Skype scandal’ made headlines for all the wrong reasons, then Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, was asked to investigate.
By his own admission, Morrison rolled his eyes when he learned of ‘another bloody review'. Broderick described the initial reception from the ADF as ‘defensive’, ‘passive aggressive’ and after her first meeting with Morrison concluded that she 'needed to find a lever of change that would have much more impact'.
And that she did. In a demonstration of what made her such an effective Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Broderick found three courageous women who were willing to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault in the ADF. She described them as ‘women who loved the army but whose service had come at an unacceptable personal cost’.
Broderick contacted Morrison and asked him to make time to come and hear the women’s stories - not as Chief as Army, but as David Morrison, human being.
In plain clothes they met at the Human Rights Commission in Sydney and for six hours, David Morrison the person, listened.
I had the privilege of hearing General Morrison speak at the AHRI Diversity and Inclusion Conference several years back. With Liz Broderick on stage alongside him, he recounted the story of this day. He said that he’d been in the Army for more than 30 years, he’d been to war, seen terrible, gut wrenching things in service. But nothing was as haunting as hearing the stories of the three courageous women on that day. In the Australian Story special, ‘Boots and All’, he described hearing ‘stores that not just tore at my heart, but tore at the ideas that I had about an institution that reported to describe itself as one that gave everyone a fair go. They hadn’t been given anything like a fair go.’ He left the meeting upset, but ‘absolutely convinced that I needed to be even firmer in my approach to deal with this’.
By all accounts, it was a life changing moment.
Clearly Morrison has long been a decisive, driven and compelling leader. But it was the courage of three women willing to share their stories, and Liz Broderick’s understanding of the impact they’d have, which created the impetus that would eventually make David Morrison into the incredible diversity advocate he is today.
Now I can’t name a HR professional who’d wish a public sex scandal on their organisation, nor the discovery of a mass of marginalised employees.
Yet unlike even the most artfully-crafted business case, or the most compelling data, there is something about sitting face to face with someone and listening to their experience which will always be hard to ignore.
When it comes to winning hearts and minds, we need to connect leaders with the untold stories of our organisations… and ask them to listen.
Do you agree? What have you seen create the diversity ah-ha moment? If you consider yourself a diversity advocate, what was the turning point for you?
I welcome your ideas and reflections.