Flexible working arrangements are successful if the employee feels supported

Flexible work arrangements are becoming more common. Workers are taking advantage to adjust working hours and locations. Employers are using flexibility to meet changing demand and technological advances.

According to ABS data, around 30% of Australian employees work from home for at least part of their week, and more than half of all businesses have offered flexible work options.

An estimated 4.1 million people, or about a third of the Australian workforce, undertook some form of freelance work in 2015, according to a study by Upwork, a global freelance jobs marketplace.

This rapid change in flexible working is also highlighted by data from the Australian government which shows that the number of ABN registrations surged by 36% surge in 2016, compared with a 4% to 8% rise seen every year between 2012 and 2015.

Research from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has highlighted the importance of workers feeling supported in the move to a more flexible arrangement. This ensures that businesses and workers can reap the benefits offered.

A growing number of people are using workplace flexibility to pursue other interests. They might work part-time or compress their work week, work from other locations, or work non-standard hours.

UNSW’s Eleanor Malbon has studied the scientific research around the impact of flexible work practices on health and says the benefits of flexibility depend on whether the worker chooses their conditions.

“It comes down to this issue of control” she says, adding that “flexibility appeals to both the employee and the employer”.

But the key to ensuring it works well for both is the issue of choice. Businesses need to ensure that employees feel supported and that they have some control over the flexible arrangements.

UNSW Consultant psychiatrist Carol Barnes points out that activity-based working, where employees no longer have a fixed desk, may reduce real estate costs, but can also harm those who don’t adapt well to the new environment.

“This is causing a lot of psychological distress in people concerned about not having a place, in terms of belonging and having a social structure,” Barnes says.

Businesses looking to attract and retain employees need to be aware that people need varying degrees of flexibility at different stages of their lives, such as when they become new parents or approach retirement age.

Barnes notes that “individuals that are supported at work and feel they have meaning and are connected at work, people like that are flourishing. They will do well and productivity goes up”.

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