Maximum potential flexibility – A different way to look at flexibility

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.