Covid-19 has redefined the way we work. As the majority of office-based employees shifted to working from home, organisations across Australia have used the pandemic period to experiment. They have tried new ways of flexible working, often scaling existing approaches that previously had not been applied consistently or sufficiently.
Even before Covid-19, the evidence and business case for flexible work had been building. Several studies, including research by the Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, had connected working flexibly with improved productivity and revenue. Importantly, flexible work supports diversity and inclusion, and specifically gender equality. It unlocks women’s and other caregivers’ workforce participation, taps into a broader talent pool and helps achieve gender balance in leadership—which, research shows, markedly improves business profitability.
Prior to this year, companies were slowly making progress. But the enforced flexibility and remote working brought on by the pandemic have illustrated that achieving these goals is both closer than we think and critically important. Covid-19 has shown that roles and industries previously considered unsuited to flexible work can be adapted. And this is not simply a practice to support women, but one that can and should engage all employees.
Since Covid-19 ushered in greater flexibility, employee productivity and engagement have increased, according to a recent Bain & Company survey, dispelling the myth that flexibility undercuts results. Individuals cite greater team agility, zero commute time and better ability to focus on “deep thinking work” as reasons for their improved productivity. Employees have, for the most part, embraced working flexibly.
Asked if they would like work to remain more flexible beyond the pandemic, employees say yes. In a survey of more than 7,000 individuals across five industry sectors conducted by Six Ideas by Dexus from May to July of this year, 74% of respondents, regardless of tenure or gender, said they were interested in working from home at least one to two days per week on average.
As organisations transition out of crisis mode and begin to plan for recovery, they have a window of opportunity to permanently embed far greater and broader flexibility—not just working from home, but reshaping the work of the future with a hybrid model in which teams are distributed across home and workplace and work flexibly in a variety of ways.
To help companies do that, this report outlines five of the most effective practices observed across corporate Australia. It draws on input from executives and other leaders about the practical solutions they are using right now to support flexibility.
We will continue this study over time, adding in-depth quantitative research as we gather evidence from real-world implementation, exploring how flexible work intersects with the long-term economic recovery and transition out of the crisis. (If you or your organisation would like to participate in this follow-up research, please contact the authors.)
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, flexibility has moved from a topic for inclusion and diversity agendas to actual large-scale implementation in the form of working from home. This has required flexible hours, working virtually with teams and clients, and massive behavioural change from leaders at all levels of the organisation. In organisations that already had existing policies and a degree of flexible working, the transition was quicker and easier. Moving forward, as Covid-19 restrictions ease and tighten in cycles, having a foundation in place to support organisational agility will be a competitive advantage.
There will be challenges, of course. For organisations, maintaining connection among a suddenly distributed workforce has sometimes been difficult, as has supporting collaboration and ensuring that corporate culture does not erode when employees are working at home. For some employees, in addition to the positives of flexibility, the pandemic period has also brought uncertainty, digital fatigue, and difficulty maintaining boundaries between work and private life. Early research shows that a disproportionate increase in household and caring responsibilities has fallen on women during this period.
Clearly, it is vitally important and valuable to create a sustainable model. Now is the time for companies to capitalise on the lessons of this pandemic period and put in place the practices that will help them reap the benefits of workplace flexibility.
Best practice No. 1: Ensure flexibility is flexible
In July, most Australian states were on the path to further lifting restrictions, but Melbourne’s shift back into lockdown and Sydney’s spike in cases illustrated the importance of taking a flexible approach to flexibility itself. Even without an unpredictable force like Covid-19, organisations have realised the value of a tailored, flexible approach to managing a distributed workforce.
Trust and empower individuals, leaders and teams to design and negotiate flexibility for themselves. Forward-thinking organisations have, for some time, empowered employees to think creatively and negotiate directly with their teams and leaders for a flexible work arrangement that works for them. This recognises that flexibility means different things for different people.
At the onset of the pandemic, transport operator Transdev placed more importance than ever on flexibility so that its frontline staff could meet their individual needs. The company’s Australian workforce consists of around 5,000 employees, a group particularly at risk from Covid-19 since 75% of them are frontline workers, 20% are over 55 years of age, and 3% are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. Transdev instituted individual check-ins from its people and culture department for all frontline employees. The aim was to understand how they were coping with Covid-19, to determine whether they felt comfortable and safe fulfilling their upcoming shifts, and to give them the option to take time off, swap shifts or change rostering times.
Insurance Australia Group (IAG) uses an app called Switch that gives call centre employees credits for taking shifts at high-volume times. Individuals can then redeem credits for shifts where there is less demand. A change in shift times of mere minutes can make a big difference in someone’s life. One person changed a shift by just 15 minutes in order to leave slightly earlier, allowing the employee to beat traffic and make it home in time for after-school pickups and dinner. Switch is currently used by over 350 IAG call centre consultants and, since launch, has enabled more than 6,000 shift changes, a 9% increase in employee well-being scores, a 23% decrease in absenteeism and a 30% decrease in attrition.
Remove institutional barriers. As the pandemic took hold, most organisations were forced to abandon preexisting approval processes for working from home. Many have seen the benefits and will continue this streamlined approach going forward.
Prior to Covid-19, IAG had established an automated approval process for flexible work in Australia, whereby employees could submit a request electronically, noting the type of flexible work desired. The process requires only one layer of approval. During the pandemic, this simplified approach has empowered IAG employees to choose flexible work options that work best for them. Beyond working from home, options include staggered start or finish times and compressed workweeks. Contact centre employees who want to switch shifts or work online make the request through the Switch app without needing manager approval. Switch has made flexibility more accessible, improved uptake and empowered team members to make decisions about their own work patterns.
Measure and encourage flexibility broadly. Organisations have started to track both formal and informal flexibility in the workplace, putting more emphasis on the latter. Engagement surveys have asked employees whether they feel able to work flexibly and supported in doing so. Verbatim comments help organisations understand why individuals may not feel supported to work flexibly, allowing them to address barriers for individuals and teams, and to sustain the flexibility adopted during the pandemic period. To increase sustainable uptake of flexible work, human resources and line managers must engage in proactive outreach to educate employees on its availability and how they can make it part of their careers.
Measuring and transparently reporting on flexibility increases accountability and implementation. It also helps organisations understand the relationship between flexibility and achieving other organisational targets, whether related to customers, operations, or people and culture. This is particularly true of gender equality goals.
Setting targets for uptake of flexible work practices, particularly men’s engagement, can lead to significant organisational change. As CEO of telecommunications and technology company Telstra, Andy Penn has committed to greater gender equality. He chairs Telstra’s diversity and inclusion council and holds quarterly meetings at which a representative of each function presents its gender data and roadmap of action.
In addition, Telstra’s Employee Pulse survey asks specific questions about flexibility, which are then reported by pay grade or band, location, and gender. Fully 94% of respondents have indicated that they are able to access flexible work arrangements and to balance work and personal life. This represents a significant advantage for Telstra, which last year achieved its goal of increasing the proportion of women in its overall workforce to more than 32%. After implementing a gender-equal and flexible parental leave policy in 2020, the company has seen a significant increase in the proportion of paid parental leave taken by men. In fact, over half of those who took more than two weeks of paid parental leave were men.
Best practice No. 2: Link flexibility to strategy and the customer
Flexibility enables greater organisational agility and can empower teams to identify their own ways of achieving an organisation’s strategic goals. It has highlighted the need to identify new ways of measuring organisational productivity and output, and it has required some organisations to redefine the way they reward and assess performance. Many have put a greater focus on outcomes and outputs in performance management, as well as the critical inputs, like collaboration, that make them possible.
For wholesale broadband provider NBN, the nationwide shift to working from home placed unprecedented demand on its network and services. The organisation quickly realised that the only way to meet consumers’ needs was to devolve solution design and implementation to teams. To support this, CEO Stephen Rue emphasised the importance of NBN’s purpose and strategy in more frequent companywide communications. Further, Rue’s executive team held regular town halls in each area of the business, to keep staff directly informed in a rapidly evolving situation.
This approach gave NBN employees and teams clarity on their roles in the midst of a crisis. It made it possible for teams to think through how they could quickly achieve the best outcome for individual employees, the team itself and the customer, whilst working flexibly. The outcome was higher productivity and engagement during the crisis phase of the pandemic, enabling the organisation to quickly expand network capacity and meet the expectations and needs of consumers across Australia.
Best practice No. 3: Model flexibility
As a result of Covid-19, sponsorship of organisational flexibility has moved from the realm of people and culture—HR and diversity and inclusion, for example—into the broader organisation. When male and female executives, board members and line managers act as role models, working flexibly themselves, they set an important example supporting a broader culture of acceptance. It signals that flexible work is a core characteristic of the organisational culture, that flexibility is possible at all levels and in all roles.
It also humanises leaders and dispels pervasive biases—in particular, that flexibility is only for women. Those biases can hinder career progression and lead to feelings of guilt. The lesson from Covid-19 is that leaders should visibly model flexible arrangements and build ongoing flexibility metrics into the executive leadership team’s quarterly reporting, with the CEO holding the team accountable.
Real estate group Mirvac launched the My Simple Thing initiative in 2016, asking construction employees to incorporate one change to support flexibility in their working day or week. Examples included starting work later in order to drop off kids at school, or finishing earlier one day a week for sports training. CEO Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz created a positive aura around leaving the office early to fulfil her “simple thing.” She ensured all leaders were early role models, asking every executive on her leadership team to report back in two weeks about their “simple thing” and how they were going to make it work. This leadership commitment helped build participation in the program, and today 75% of employees report they have some form of flexible working arrangement in place, facilitating better balance between work and life.
Best practice No. 4: Encourage and enable team flexibility
For organisations to be truly flexible, it’s not enough for individuals to embrace it; teams must, too. Organisations can take a number of steps to support teams on this journey.
Ask teams to define flexibility for themselves. Teams can embrace flexibility by creating their own norms and ways of working to support their goals. Examples might include meeting-free Mondays, no meetings over lunch or before 9 AM, or moving close of business to 9 AM the next day to support a flexible workday. Ultimately, it is about allowing individuals, their leaders and the team as a collective to make flexibility work for them.
At mining, metals and petroleum company BHP, flexible hours for one crew at Newman in Western Australia allow the operation’s fleet of trucks to keep working through meal breaks. They have dubbed themselves “the bamboo crew”: Like bamboo, the team is strong and flexible, yet firmly rooted. With such flexibility, BHP can recruit from a larger and more diverse talent pool, including parents who want to work part-time and people who are semiretired, in addition to those who wish to work full-time.
And when Telstra started rolling out Agile at scale, it linked the effort to the organisation’s broader inclusion and flexibility strategy. Teams were encouraged to create charters defining their own norms, including start and finish times, flexible ways of working and guidelines for inclusive meetings.
Define effective and inclusive meeting norms. During the Covid-19 pandemic, all participants have been on the same footing in virtual meetings on Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Webex. (The CEO, after all, is as likely to have a child wander through the background as anyone else.) As organisations begin to return to the workplace, however, teams may well operate under a hybrid model, distributed across homes and workplaces and across different working schedules.
As food and beverage giant Nestlé NZ has come out of lockdown and returned to its offices in Auckland, the company is piloting new inclusive meeting norms as it rethinks the role of the office. Mirvac is undergoing a similar process.
Emerging best practices for office-based workers include the following:
- Ask for attendees’ availability before scheduling meetings. (Avoid assuming people are free early mornings or late afternoons.)
- Show in calendar invitations whether a meeting is in person, virtual or a hybrid. For virtual and hybrid meetings, indicate whether it is video on or off (or a combination).
- Avoid in-person meetings on days or at times that are popular for working from home—Mondays and Fridays, for example—to encourage employees to sustain their flexible schedules.
- Lock in meeting-free periods, such as lunch from 12:30 PM to 1:30 PM daily.
- During meetings, appoint a moderator or chair to ensure equal voice to all participants, especially those not in the room. (This may require interrupting the interrupters!)
- Schedule virtual meetings if one or more team members are working from home.
Seek feedback on flexibility in pulse checks. At a team level, quick and frequent surveys of team health (pulse checks) can be used to measure individuals’ engagement with flexibility. Collecting feedback on whether flexibility is working well or not, and then discussing this feedback live at weekly or monthly team meetings, puts teams in charge of shaping the way they work.
By collecting feedback during the pandemic period, management has an opportunity to listen to employees and include those insights in shaping its future model of work and flexibility. ANZ, for example, has been conducting “big retros” across its global organisation. Borrowing from the Agile vocabulary, these retrospective conversations have enabled teams to discuss what has been going well and what they need to do differently given the experience of the past few months. Approximately half of ANZ employees have participated, with 2,700 teams sharing their comments on the organisation’s Yammer platform, reflecting more than 5,600 conversations.
Best practice No. 5: Support individuals to work flexibly
Provide a conducive environment for flexible work. For many individuals and teams, working from home will be a form of flexible work that suits them and fits their needs. During the crisis phase of Covid-19, organisations have supported individuals’ work from home with technology and, in some cases, funds to set up and run a home office, covering everything from chairs and desks to ongoing utility costs, such as broadband. Ensuring that individuals who work at home have the right health and safety setup, and have access to best-in-class technology and collaboration tools, will continue to be critical. In the longer term, potential savings from reduced office space could be reinvested to support individuals working remotely.
For other employees, however, the home environment is not conducive to working. They may not have a dedicated workspace, may need to accommodate family members or flatmates, or have personal safety considerations. Giving people the choice of where to work is an important principle of ensuring that flexibility is truly flexible.
Some organisations looking to tap into regional talent pools are considering the creation of regional hubs or access to coworking spaces. Telstra’s Agents@Home program is one example. At the onset of the pandemic, Telstra was able to scale a trial program already underway in Australia. Today more than 1,500 customer service agents are working from home, and that number is increasing each week. The company expects this approach to provide additional employment opportunities in regional Australia over time.
Train leaders of flexible teams. Leading and managing performance when teams are working flexibly is different, and a new skill for many. Leaders must help teams redesign work, and they will need a much clearer view and articulation of the output and impact of teams and individuals in order to measure performance. These managers must connect and build empathy with individuals who may be in different locations or just working in a different way. Covid-19 has made authentic leadership more important, as managers and leaders seek to genuinely connect with and care for their employees in this time of uncertainty.
As the pandemic began, NBN quickly developed a set of guides and playbooks for leaders, supported by master classes, on topics relevant to flexible work and leading teams in this new paradigm. These include “Unify your team wherever they are working” and “Embedding new norms and ways of working virtually.” There is also practical advice on everything from supporting team resilience to successfully delivering end-of-year performance reviews virtually. NBN is looking to build on the playbook and master class suite to continue to support its leaders through the next phase of managing dispersed teams.
As employees’ desire to work more flexibly increases, organisations will require resources to define and set up flexible work arrangements. At Dexus, staff are staggering their transition back to the workplace under a hybrid model. The business quickly launched a guide to help team leaders and individuals design flexible work arrangements to ensure that the employee, leader, team, customer and ultimately Dexus all benefit.
Expand resources for individuals seeking to build resilience and manage uncertainty and change. During the crisis phase of Covid-19, many organisations increased the resources available to individuals, whether via well-being programs, training on virtual collaboration tools like Miro, or support for their increased caring and homeschooling responsibilities. Working flexibly under a hybrid model will bring a new set of changes and require further adaptation of job routines. Continuing to help individuals build their capacity to move forward through uncertainty will be critical. Tools like the Unmind workplace mental health platform enable employees to assess, track and understand their mental well-being over time, providing resources and training that can be customised to different cohorts.
Overall, this extraordinary period has given companies unequalled insight into both the value of flexibility and how to do it right. By following best practices, organisations set themselves up for success in the next phase of hybrid work, and beyond.
Assessing where your organisation stands
As organisations transition back to the workplace, our tool can help them gauge where they are in their flexibility journey and decide where to invest in order to adopt and sustain best practices (see Figure 1).
About the authors and acknowledgements
Agathe Gross is a partner with Bain & Company in Sydney and leads the firm’s Australia Diversity & Inclusion program. You may contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sue Morphet is president of Chief Executive Women. You may contact her at email@example.com.
Libby Lyons is the director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The authors would like to recognise the following team members’ contributions to the report: Megan Waller, associate partner with Bain & Company in Sydney; Annie Lei, consultant with Bain in Perth; Susan Metcalf, CEO of Chief Executive Women (CEW); Jenny Boddington, nonexecutive director and chair of the Business Engagement Committee at CEW; Melanie Fernandez, CEW’s director of policy, advocacy and research; and Kate Lee, executive manager of engagement at the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
Bain & Company, CEW and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which we work and pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging.
The authors wish to thank the CEW members that contributed their insight and leading thinking to this report, particularly ANZ, Australia Post, BCG, BHP, Circle In, Clipsal Solar, Culture Confidence, Dexus and Six Ideas by Dexus, How Do You Do It, IAG, KPMG, Laing Advisory, Mirvac, NAB, NBN, Nestlé, QIC, Schneider Electric, Telstra, Transdev and Twitter.
Thanks also to Dr. Jacqui Abbott of Jacqui Abbott Consulting for her contributions to this report, and to Diversity Council Australia for its ongoing work in this area.