Getting up to speed with workplace flexibility in SMEs

| July 22, 2010

As a partner in a business, plus an outspoken advocate on workplace flexibility, I am very conscious of practicing what I preach and maintaining a competitive business edge.

I often hear it said that flexible work practices can work in a very big business, with lots of resources including an HR department, but not in small (1-19 employees) or even medium (20-199 employees) businesses .

That’s not my experience.  I don’t think size matters – it’s more about creating a culture of give and take.

In some ways, flexibility is even more critical in an SME because every person counts.  Because we are lean, I want our staff to be fully engaged, to stay with us for a long time, and to go the extra mile.  I also want to stay out front as a market leader by focussing on what we are good at, and minimising negative costs and disruption.  If flexibility can help me achieve those outcomes (and it does), then I am up to the challenge of making it work.

Fortunately I am on board with flexibility as a matter of choice – but for those who are tentative, you should know that the legislative tide has turned.  As from 1 January 2010, the Fair Work Act (Cth) now provides that eligible employees (ie those with children under school age, or those with a child under 18 with a disability) have the “right to request” flexibility from their employer, and the employer must respond in writing, within 21 days.  A request should only be denied on reasonable business grounds – and those reasons must be disclosed to the employee.

I don’t think this is doomsday legislation, in fact I think it provides employers with a framework for a flexibility discussion, as well as consistency of decision-making across the business.  Our research has found that managers often say “No” to an employee’s request because of a lack of confidence in predicting how it will all work out (and what to do if it goes wrong).

This legislation compels employers to think through the logic of their fears, to reality check them – and to identify possible solutions.  We have already found that there’s a lot of inconsistent decision making going on – and what one manager agrees to, another one doesn’t.  This legislation calls for transparency of decision making (it’s in writing), and promotes consistency (how can you cogently argue that flexibility for a role in one area is unreasonable, and for the same role in an equivalent business unit it’s not?).

To make it all work together, here are a few tips:

  1. Know where you stand as an employer – and tell as your managers. Have a look at my summary of the new legislation to ensure you know its ambit and requirements: .  It’s not that hard to work out, but you need to know where you stand because non-compliance attracts a fine of $6,600.
  2. Build a win/win culture.  Discuss with (not “tell”) employees how flexibility can work for the business and the employee.  I have found that when I give employees ownership about finding a solution to their flexibility needs they step up to the mark.  They know that the work has to get done and they value the flexibility they have (eg to work from home and to work part-time).
  3. Check in from time to time.  This tip applies at both a personal and organisational level.  From a personal perspective, things change and a flexibility arrangement that worked at the beginning may not be quite right now.  For example five years ago one of our staff worked 3 days a week (9-5pm)–but when her youngest child started school she wanted to be there to pick her up.  By checking in, we planned for a change to her roster – and she now works school hours for 3 days a week, and a long day on the fourth.  She’s happy, we’re happy.   From an organisational perspective, it’s a great idea to monitor how well flexibility (and the legislation) is being implemented.  You can ask: Are people happy with the decision making process and outcome? Have we centralised information about decisions?  What happened if we rejected someone’s decision?

SMEs have a real opportunity and need to do flexibility well.  In terms of the opportunity, there’s often less red tape in our organisations, we’re agile and quick – so we can leverage managers’ expectations that they know their business well and will be final decision makers.  In terms of the need, no-one has to tell us how much we need great staff, but we sometimes wonder how we can be competitive against the mega corporations.  Flexibility provides us with a cost neutral “value add” on the employment offer – and for me it’s actually been a positive cost/benefit.  I expect that getting up to speed with the “right to request” flexibility legislation won’t be a stretch for you.  If you are already doing flexibility well – this just makes things more formal, transparent and consistent.