The demand for workplace flexibility appears to be coming from all quarters – employees want it and organisations know they should do it, but for some reason, there is little traction. Why do so many good intentions of increasing the uptake of flexible work options often result in very little change?
One common error we observe is flexibility being approached purely as a policy and/or process issue. HR teams work hard to create policies, practices and guidelines that support people who want to work flexibly. IT initiatives are delivered to provide the technology people need to work their own way. What is often missing, however, is the third, and arguably the most crucial, component – cultural change.
Without addressing the cultural components of workplace flexibility, even the best written policies will remain on the shelf. It is the social and relational support of individuals within the organisation that creates the perception of access to flexible work, this directly impacts on its uptake and success.
Just like the cultural changes we have seen in the past few decades around Occupational Health and Safety, changing our work practices to ensure we have an agile, sustainable workforce into the future requires a long term approach that uses multiple vehicles to drive this change1. Merely telling people that they should act in a more flexible way is not enough to shift people’s behaviour and attitudes. We need to address why specific behaviours exist and what drives them.
This means educating people not just on why they should change, but developing their skills to do so and, as change agents, tracking change in attitudes and behaviours over time to assess how effective the cultural transformation has been.
One of the biggest challenges that we observe is that flexibility is still considered by many leaders as an employee perk – a benefit that is given largely to those who deserve it or earned it in some way. It is assumptions such as this that restrict who can access flexible work options and under what conditions.
Furthermore, the association between flexible work and mothers of young children is also still strong and persistent – anyone else may be seen (or see themselves) as unsuitable for flexible working. Unfortunately this association is accompanied by the view that those who work flexibly are less committed to their roles or less productive in some way, pushing people even further from flexible work to avoid this stigma.
Such assumptions are completely untrue, as research suggests quite the opposite – men want to work flexibly (but feel they cannot), flexible employees are the most productive group of individuals in the workforce and they have been shown to be equally committed to their careers. Without addressing these deep seated associations, assumptions and biases, creating a workplace where people are given equal access to flexible working and establishing an organisation which enjoys the benefits of an agile workforce will remain a fantasy.
Flexibility is a complex issue and each organisation has its own unique culture that requires a tailored response. Key to a successful FlexWork program is a good diagnostic to assess the attitudes, behaviours and perceptions that contribute to the social norms in that organisation. It is these mindsets need to shift, a task that is not easy as they have been created over generations of social and cultural expectations that we attach to the meaning of work.
Creating flexible workplaces is by no means a single cure for equality, but without a workplace culture where working flexibly is not only normal, but also valued, those who use these work options will remain marginalised.
For more information on Symmetra’s Flexible work solutions, visit our FlexAgility page, call us on +61 (0) 2 8570 9400 or email email@example.com
 Kossek, E. E, Lewis, S., and Hammer, L. B, (2010) Work-life initiatives and Organisational Change: Overcoming mixed messages to move from the margin to the mainstream. Human Relations, Vol 63(1), 3-19.
 Johnson, A. A., Shannon, L. L., & Richman, A. L. (2008). Challenging common myths about workplace flexibility: Research notes from the multi-organization database. Community, Work & Family, 11(2), 231-242.