EVENT RECAP: The Future Of Workforce Flexibility (October 2020)

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MWI recently hosted a panel of leading women in marketing and business to discuss the topic of flexibility at work and give us all guidance on how to navigate this topic. The broad discussion covered topics such as how to ask for flexibility, what impact COVID has had on employer’s attitudes to the area and the benefits and barriers to flexibility from an organisational perspective.

You can watch a recording of the webinar here or read on for an edited transcript of the event. (NB: the sound starts 19 seconds into the recording).

The event was presented in partnership with Commtract, a digital platform that connects highly skilled communication, marketing, creative and digital experts with contract jobs across Australia and NZ.

Our moderator was Angela Piasente (AP), the Chair of Marketing Women Inc, and a leading FMCG marketer. Our panellists were:

  • Kate Russell (KR), General Manager of Business Development, Commtract
  • Nicki Drinkwater (ND), Former Interim General Manager Public Affairs and Communications, Coca-Cola Amatil
  • Yolanda Uys (YU), General Manager Marketing, Coles Liquor
  • Adrienne Gugliandolo (AG), People & Culture Advisor, Cricket Australia

Some Stats on Workplace Flexibility

30% of Australians are freelancers and contractors.  The average number of skills that Australian workers have for an advertised role is 2 out of 18.  Deloitte estimates that $10.8 billion could be added to the economy if we could increase gender diversity.  Currently only 26% of the full time employees in Australia are women

What does flexibility mean to you?

YU:  Flexibility means choices about when you work and where you work. Long gone are the days of 9-to-5 office based jobs. It is something different for everybody. 

I’d encourage individuals to think about it as a two way conversation between them and their manager or the person they work for.  Where are there parameters for them to give you flexibility? What pressures are they under and what responsibilities and commitments might prevent them giving you flexibility? It starts with a conversation.

AG:  For Cricket Australia, it is about trust and honesty – we trust you to manage your workday and your workload as you see fit.  From Day 1, everyone is set up to work flexibly, including from home.  We also have an all roles flex policy, which has been in place for over two years.   This gives our people the opportunity to structure their work week how they like – such as 9 day fortnights, working 7 to 2.30pm or working from home once or twice a week.

Adoption is based on the manager – some people have a more traditional way of working and only work from home for a specific purpose.  We have been working to change this mindset so everyone can put flexibility into their work week and have a better balance with their life.

ND: As a former elite athlete and worker, flexibility meant being able to work around training and competing.     Then when I moved to Australia ten years ago with my husband and working full time with young kids, flexibility meant something very different. 

When I started my job at the Waratahs, I had a two month old daughter and a two year old.   In order to get to interviews, my husband would meet me in the carpark and I’d hand over a just breast fed sleeping baby. Then I’d come back feed her and get her to sleep again.

As an employer, if you don’t offer flexibility you aren’t choosing from the whole talent pool and are putting yourself at a disadvantage.  

What did you learn as a contractor? What skills do you need to build upon to be successful?

ND:  At Coca-Cola Amatil, I worked full time for 5 years but then in my last year I worked in an interim capacity on a project basis, so I’ve seen it from both perspectives.  The things that are relevant in an interim capacity are really relevant for everyone, when we’re working in times of such uncertainty or with lots of change. My key tips are:

  1. Think about and be ruthless about your prioritisation. Don’t try and do everything
  2. Contractors are there to bring in external skills and insight. Be okay with being an independent thinker.  Seek out information, use your network and ask questions of people around you to make your own view and bring that external insight in to the organisation.
  3. Have empathy and courage in your relationships. Very rarely now do people lead by telling people what to do.  It is now more about how you influence and work with other people to deliver outcomes.   Focus on collaborative relationships not on how you can get your way.

Why are companies looking to use freelancers, consultants and contractors versus full time employees as a way of the future?

KR:   I think this shift has been happening for a while, it is not new.  What has happened in the last six months has fast tracked the trend, especially in terms of marketing and communications industry. 

Companies are discovering the many benefits of this approach:

  1. They can source workers with specific skills.  As much, as we’d love to hire a ‘unicorn’ employee who can literally do everything, this isn’t always possible.    
  2. Better management of costs. With a contingent workforce, a company can align their costs with sales and have the flexibility to increase and decrease staff numbers as required.  For example, due to seasonal changes, perhaps the Christmas period if you’re in retail.
  3. It allows companies to ‘try before they buy’ – is this person the right fit? Are they going to deliver the skills you really need?
  4. It challenges traditional hierarchies.  Outsourcing can shift the power structure.  Consultants bring fresh ideas and may be able to challenge some ways of thinking that a full time employee may not be able to do.
  5. It allows for diverse perspectives – Companies can bring in new ideas, perspectives and staff locations. For example, a company in Sydney could hire a consultant in Melbourne.

What are the benefits you’ve seen from flexibility in the workplace?

YU:  The key benefit is health, both mental and physical. That is so important. Flexibility gives people the ability to balance the pressures of this crazy world in a way that works for them.  As has already been said, it also you to bring  in a more diverse team, with different experiences who may need a little bit more flexibility to lean in and be the amazing people we know that they are.  

The flipside of not being flexible is stress, burnout, loss of social connection and actually the quality of the work being done.   If you are in a roles or situations where the pressure gets so high or life is pulling you n a million different directions, then you can’t be everything you are at work.  We come to work as full individuals with all the light and shade.  If we are not flexible, we pay the price somewhere – whether it’s the organisation not having the right people, the individual through mental or physical health. 

What barriers do we need to overcome in organisations for flexibility to be effective in the workplace?

YU: The key barriers is about stepping away from the perception that work is what happens between 9am and 5pm.  Managers need to be more aware of flexibility and move beyond the mindset that people need to sit at a desk and be visible in order to deliver the output required.   

The best way to build the awareness is to have a conversation.  We need to be willing to be brave, to  believe that we are worth it and have lots to offer.   We need to sit down and make our manager aware of what flexibility means to us.

Is it difficult to build trust and rapport with team members when you’re working on a flexible basis?

ND:  Perhaps not difficult, but it is different.  I see a parallel to working in that environment and how a lot of sports teams operate.  Quite often, and certainly at an international level, a team is brought together potentially just a couple of weeks before an event or a tournament.  The things that are important in a corporate environment are the same – we are all humans.

At the basic level, we need to feel that we belong and that we’re significant in the environment that we operate in.  The foundation for a team to perform well is high trust: we can’t be watching our back all the time.   If we apply that in a work sense, people need to understand what they do and that its important in an overall sense.  They also need to feel that what they do has meaning.  It is not the captain and coach that drives success.  Everyone plays a part and needs to feel like part of the team.

The other factor in sports environment is that all teams start with some kind of tour or event to get to know each other beyond more than just what they do.  That’s important as trust is about getting to know your colleagues – their values and their everyday lives.   In some ways the virtual environment helps us with that side of things.  It encourages that informality.  On a zoom call I find I learn more about people than I would in the office, you get to see into their homes, the kids coming in, the pictures or the bookshelves.   

Be understanding and tolerant.  We all have different challenges – its not always easy to see them.

What kind of hiring solutions are you seeing companies use that they may not have used historically?

KR:  We’ve been talking a lot about the future of work.  It is promising to think about less bureaucracy, more flexible hours and that it may not come in the shape of a star ‘unicorn’ employee with a corner office.   Companies will still continue to seek the best talent.  What’s changing is how they are going about doing it.

Companies are beginning to look at what the teams of the future might look like. I’m ex Lululemon which was definitely a company grounded in our purpose and values.  Being grounded in purpose and providing data is what is needed to remove the rigid structures established in the past.

One focus will be on building workforces made up of high quality people, who are flexible but also available on demand. Lots of other things in our lives are now on demand.  Why not the workforce?

Companies are also requiring specialists.  For example, consider a large company who needs a CEO media trained.  It doesn’t make sense to go and hire a full time person or traditionally they might have brought on an agency.  Instead they are looking at bringing on an ex-journalist, who has the communication skills, has worked in an agency and can come on as a contractor and train the CEO. 

Or is it a small business who can’t justify bringing on a PR agency, but they need to launch a product? They need someone to help with the PR launch and media relations.  Now the solutions are contractors and freelancers as part of the mix.

It also allows companies to able to fill gaps and this is both short term and long term. such as maternity leave and annual leave, or over the busy period.

They are also looking at a mix of junior and senior roles.  For example, if we look at a key role like a CMO, companies are now looking at bringing in a strategic decision-maker on a contract basis.

We’ve talked about consultants and outsourcing.  But what about existing employees.  If you were my leader, how would you respond if I asked you for flexibility?

YU:  Its definitely something that has happened to me in all the companies I’ve worked for. 

As a leader, I approach it by firstly seeking to understand the why.  What has happened that means you require flexibility? For example, is it a life stage or an event?  The joyous event of starting a family has made up the majority of the asks that I have received.  Let’s understand what you need and for how long?  

Then I think about whether that person can still deliver to the scope of their role in a part time or flexible capacity.  That depends on lots of different things, such as the responsibilities of the role, the deadlines coming up, pressures associated with what time of year it might be.  I’m always thinking about how I set the individual up to succeed – this is perhaps more important than the delivering the company’s objectives.  The last thing I want to do is give someone flexibility when there is such a big gap between my expectation and what they can actually deliver.  Nobody is going to win.

If there is a situation where I can see that the flexibility required and the role that the individual is in  doesn’t marry up, I look at what else can we potentially get the individual to step into.  Is there a secondment or an opportunity to swirl talent in my team? For example, can I give another team member the opportunity to step into this role and giving the individual seeking flexibility an opportunity to try something else and broaden their skill set?  

The main thing is that is a two way conversation. As individuals, be brave enough to have that conversation.  But also be open minded enough to know that you might need to be flexible about what that could look like to enable you to get what you need and be successful.

I’d encourage managers to be creative. I’ve never hit a situation where the answer is just no

From an organisational perspective, what has been the impact of flexibility on Cricket Australia?

AG:   This year has obviously been a unique experience for most sporting organisations, who have been heavily impacted by COVID 19.  We had an extended staff stand down period, and then a restructure and about 40 roles made redundant.  It was a massive change period for us.  Our focus was to make sure we could adapt to an agile work environment.  This cricket season that we are about to launch will be like no other- we need to be ready for change.   

Last month, we conducted an engagement survey with our employees.  One of the questions we asked was their agreement to the statement We are genuinely able to make use of flexible work arrangements. We had a 93% agreement rate on that question, which is a 13% increase on last year when we asked the same question.  That result has driven by this environment, working from home and people feeling that they can manage their days as they wish.

How has the role of People & Culture enabled this flexibility and how do you see this evolving in the future?

AG:  In the current climate, we have allowed people to use their personal leave to support them to deal with the pressures happening, such as caring for children or home schooling.  We have had this offer all over our communication platforms. We have also empowered our senior managers to be able to make that decision and to be able to sit with their employees to work out options and have that conversation.

We also dedicated an entire month to Wellness.  While it is a buzzword, it is important that people take that time to focus on themselves. We ran multiple sessions, such as lunch time fitness sessions, yoga, meditation, nutrition sessions.  Everybody who ran them was actually employed by us.  It helped to bring people together and connected online.  This was driven by the fact that when you’re working remotely, you’re really only talking to your team and not seeing the people you’d normally meet on the stairs or while making a cup of tea.  It was optional but we had a really positive uptake.  It was really fun to have everyone connecting.

We wanted to keep it alive, so we now have Wellness Wednesdays to encourage people to take that time out of their day for themselves.  We’re also looking at other ways to do that – for example a wellness platform.  

What final thoughts would you like to leave with our audience with today on flexibility in the workforce?

YU:  Flexibility is a way of building stronger teams. It is about bringing new thinking and diversity back into teams.  Most importantly, it is about making yourself a priority.  We need to step away from the idea that you can’t look after yourself and your family and make a great contribution at work.  

I see too many women stepping out the workforce, stepping back or not believing they can do those amazing roles because they don’t feel there is room for flexibility.  The only way we will change this is to have the conversation.  Be vulnerable.  Most importantly have the courage to share why its important to you.  Even if that manager looks inflexible and look like they won’t listen.  The only way we’ll change those beliefs it is to have the conversation. 

There is no reason why we can’t have flexibility in today’s environment.  Be courageous – we all need flexibility – it is gender neutral.  You deserve it! You have so much to bring to any organisation.

AP: Some of the best advice I’ve ever been given is to not try to predict the outcome of a difficult conversation! Don’t assume it’s a no.

AG:  I’d second what Yolanda said.   If you’re worried about when your workplace goes back to normal or you’re not able to work from home any more, don’t be afraid to have that conversation.  If you don’t ask, then the answer is always going to be no. 

For myself, I’m in my late 20s and don’t have children.  I always felt that I couldn’t ask for flexibility But, about twelve months ago, I asked my manager if I could work 8am to 4.30 to put a bit of time back in my day.   This gives me time to go the gym, cook a good dinner, spend time with my partner or see friends.

The main message is don’t be afraid to have the conversation, as you don’t know what the outcome is going to be.  At the moment, the mindset is changing and it is a good opportunity and time to change the way you work and make a difference to your life.

KR: When it comes to freelancers, it is a two-sided market.  My advice to companies is to be really clear on the brief. It is just like briefing an agency – be clear on what you the job is, the budget and the timeframe and be sure you’re setting the consultant up for success.

For freelancers / consultants, when you are pitching for work, be really clear on your skills. Articulate them well and use past examples.   

We also get a lot of questions about the rate – there are no hard and fast rules. So speak to people who are previous consultants and have that conversation about day rates and expectations.  We are already moving towards to a more contingent workforce, but there are still a lot of unknowns from both sides.  Maybe its about trying something new to see what works for you.

ND: When you know what flexibility looks like for you, my advice would be to be really open – to live it and lead it.  Be really visible about it, as it gives other people permission.  We think flexibility is just about Mums coming back to the workforce, and that can be really alienating for others.  

A great example of a boss I used to work for, a male. He used to call it leading loudly.  In his case, it was arriving late. He wouldn’t take meeting before 9.30am two mornings a week, as he dropped his kids at school. 

You can have all the policies you like, but if you have a culture that doesn’t tolerate flexibility, then the policies are worthless.  In this case, actions speak louder than words.  Whatever it is that your flexibility looks like, own it and live it, because you are giving other people permission to have their flexibility.

Audience Question:  What impact does part time work have on career progression?

YU: I don’t think it should impact on career progression.  It really depends on what you need at each stage.  I’m starting an exciting new role in November and I’m going back four days not five. I’m going to do that as I want to invest that extra day in a whole raft of other things, least of all continuing my studies.

It shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion that part time or going back in flexible manner will impact you negatively.  I think it makes us stronger individuals and better contributors to the workforce if we get the flexibility we need when we need it, so we can contribute at our optimal level when we are at work. 

KR: I completely agree.  As a consultant, you can be a part time consultant / contractor or a full time consultant.  There are lots of different ways to work.

One of the benefits of consulting is that you get a diverse mix of clients. One of the consultants on our platform works three days for a really large government department and on the fourth day with a small business.  When I talked to her about that mix, she said that she wants to be able to diversify her skills and be able to say that she knows how to scale up or down and work with agile teams.

In terms of my past experience, some of the most inspirational leaders that I worked with were mothers who worked four days a week.  They were so intention and so productive.  They knew that they had X time to start and then finish and that they had a lot of deliverables in that time.

I don’t see part time impacting.  I think it is how it is positioned, how you are having the conversations and setting expectations.  Its also important to get really clear on what success looks like in your role.

ND: I’ve coached a few people on this issue in different guises, and the question which comes up most is that I’m worried about how it would look on my CV.  Whether its part time, a more junior role or a smaller or less high profile company, right now everyone has total permission to do something different.  When we look back, everyone globally will look at this year and probably next year and say its okay, it was COVID.  You have permission to work part time or even not work at all.  Whatever it is you want to do.  This is the silver lining of COVID – the expectations of what we do and how we do it are very different.

AG: I would add that if you’re worried that part time will impact your career, make sure you’re having an impact in what you’re contributing. That’s going to be the result at the end of the day. If you know you can come to work and give your 100% self in the hours or days that you are working, there should be no reason at all for it to impact your career progression.

 Audience Question:  How you best negotiate flexibility in a job offer when it is a full time role?

AG:  I get asked that a lot with roles I recruit for.  Explain the why. If you want flexibility in a new role that has been advertised say full time and you’d like to work the role in four days.  You need to able to explain how you’re going to get those priorities in place in the days and hours you are working.

Some employers might say let’s trial this for three or four months and then we’ll review it.  If they will do that, take their offer. If you can show that you can make an impact in the first few months, there is no reason for them to shift it back to full time.

YU: I’d like to build on what Adrienne said.  Start shifting the focus to what you’re going to deliver in role and focus on the outputs not the hours.  If you have that conversation upfront, there is no reason why you and your manager can’t be clear on what you’re expected to deliver and then being flexible about the hours you work to deliver that.  Be transparent from the beginning.  I love the idea of giving it a crack and then checking in with both parties.

ND:  More and more organisations are realising the benefits of offering flexibility. Do your research. Speak to people who work there or even just check out the website. Chances are you’ll see the company speaking publicly or promoting the fact that it offers flexibility.  It’s a great opportunity for you to say you really appeal to me because of this. Use that to your advantage.

Audience Question:  Do you think flexibility impacts productivity, especially job sharing situations?

ND: Yes, positively

YU: Yes, I agree, positively. It is a good thing.  In a job sharing capacity, it makes us rely on better communication, more transparency and making sure we are collaborating. Not just holding on to things. 

I can’t see the downside of flexibility.  I have in my experience only seen good things come of it.  One of the best things for me is the diversity of experience which it enables you to have within your team.

AG: I completely agree. It increases communication which makes you more productive. You need to make sure you everything in place for whoever you’re sharing the job with, which increases productivity. If you are aware of what you have going on, and your workload, you will be productive.

ND: Employees that feel valued and empowered to work effectively in a way that suits them give more discretionary effort. They are more engaged and motivated. You get that back – whether its extra hours or what they say and how they advocate for you to their network.  They will strive to be better at their job, because they really appreciate the relationship and the trust.  That is totally my experience.

YU: I’d like to build on that. Pre-COVID, I saw a lot of resistance from a couple of managers who believed that people needed to be in the office sitting there – I don’t know what they’re doing when they’re working from home.  COVID has been like a time machine that has fast forwarded us five years.  I think it has forever changed the way we work as employees and the perceptions of organisations around what flexibility means.  

It has been the biggest gift when it comes to enabling flexibility.  From an employer side, they have now put the technology in place to make it a possibility for everybody in the organisation.  From the employee side, it has also given us permission as employees to try it out and see what it feels like. 

But working from home isn’t for everyone, some people enjoy being in that office environment.  If you’re in Victoria right now, I think you’re busting to get back to the office and have any form of social connection.

How do you see flexibility evolving post COVID?

YU:  Forever and ever, COVID will have changed flexibility. It will not be something that we ask for, it will be something we demand.  Companies will need to be geared up to deliver working 24/7 365.  It is going to be a new way of working.

KR:  Absolutely.  I hope what people have taken from today is that there are many different sides to flexibility.  You have flexibility as an employee – how do I go to my manager?  You have flexibility in terms of an employer. Flexibility is also about looking at what a flexible workforce will look like.

From the future workforce point of view, I do believe it will be the mix of full timers, consultants and freelancers. It is happening now and has been happening for a while.  The last six months have expedited it to happen even quicker.

The downside is that there has been a lot of redundancies, which has really impacted people.  But one of the positive is that employers have had to consider what is it that we are actually here to do  and need.  They have looked at how to restructure to not only save costs, but also to look at being more productive.  What are the gaps in our current organisation that we need to fill that could perhaps be filled with a consultant?  To be honest, managing costs is always important.   But it is also about how we bring in other ideas and how do we innovate.  It is not going to look like it always has looked with a traditional hierarchy.  It is going to look very different.

AG:  I think it will continue to evolve.  Flexible working will hang around a little bit longer post COVID and it will be a while before we fully move into every day back in the office with 300 people in your building or similar.  Teams and managers will be really creative. Maybe we work from home on these days and come into the office on these particular days or make it more purpose based.

Now that so many organisations and leaders have seen how well it works and the benefits it can have on everyone’s mental health, productivity and getting their priorities delivered, it will stick around. I don’t see how it can’t.

Thanks to all our panellists and to Commtract for partnering with us on this event.  

If you have any great success stories of flexibility or job share, we’d love to hear them via email info@marketingwomeninc.com.au or contact us via social media.  

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