Workforce | Skills

Workplace flexibility: Time to walk the talk

Business leaders and board members have to “walk the talk” to make their workplaces more flexible and to retain a broad range of staff in an era of labour force shortages, a CEDA forum in Adelaide has heard.

Business leaders and board members have to "walk the talk" to make their workplaces more flexible and to retain a broad range of staff in an era of labour force shortages, a CEDA forum in Adelaide has heard.

Speakers from public and private enterprises told the forum on Growing Workforce Participation that having the senior executive team work flexibly had sent a strong signal through their organisations and many of the reasons formerly given for not promoting part time people now seemed like "poor excuses".

The forum also heard that businesses needed to focus on the outcomes they need and how to reorganise working arrangements to achieve them. The panel of business leaders said:

  • SA's female labour force participation remained 2.5 per cent lower than other states and its total participation rate had fallen 0.1 per cent in the September quarter to 62.5 per cent.
  • While Australia's female workforce participation increased from 40 per cent to 59 per cent between 1966 and 2003, almost half the number of women with children under five are not in the labour force, and almost a quarter of women with children between 6-14 do not participate.
  • SA needs to harness the large pool of around 150,000 underemployed and unemployed workers to maximise its economic and social opportunities.
  • Policy makers and business leaders should focus on programs to improve work readiness for the long term unemployed and to change workplace culture to include workers from diverse backgrounds.
  • Businesses must start with a diversity plan linked to performance payments to ensure managers were committed to increasing workforce diversity. This plan should aim to remove hidden biases against groups such as women, older workers and people with English as a second language.
  • Diversity measures could include leave purchasing arrangements, family leave, re-organising work structures, work from home arrangements and adequately rewarding part time and older workers.

BAE Systems, Director, Corporate Affairs and Defence Logistics, Christine Zeitz said managers needed to take a risk and see past impediments to give part time workers big responsibilities. It was easy to find good reasons not to promote women or part time workers to senior roles or reasons why workplace flexibility was impossible but these were often merely poor excuses, she said.

Equally women needed to question whether they were making poor excuses not to take on challenging roles, she said.

In moving the culture of the workforce to a more flexible workplace since 2009, BAE's management board and top 100 staff made a commitment to working flexibly and this was linked to bonuses.

"That was a fundamental change in our culture," and while most senior executives had originally said they were unable to work flexibly due to their workload, a significant proportion now worked flexibly ­still doing the same amount of work, she said.

"For those today who are managers and owners of businesses, and who want to increase the level of females in senior leadership roles in their business, I think you need to seek them out and give them a challenge, take a risk," she said.

"Women hesitate more than men in putting themselves forward for roles."

In a bid to attract workers in a labour market where most of the young men are seduced by high mining sector incomes, WA WaterCorporation had swapped its male-based workforce for "women with prams," offering leave purchase and work from home arrangements, WA WaterCorporation CEO, Sue Murphy said.

But while many of these measures had targeted women, younger men with families and older men had also taken up the chance to work flexibly, she said.

By focusing on outcomes rather than job titles, the corporation had been able to employ local Aboriginal workers in remote parts of WA rather than importing them from Perth at great expense, she said.

"We had the radical idea of instead of moving people to the remote communities, why don't we actually employ the people who already live there? It doesn't sound like rocket science but somehow it took about 100 years to think of this plan," she said.

As well as being a tool for attracting and retaining workers, increasing workforce diversity had helped the WA WaterCorporation to engage with its customers - trying to influence consumer's choices about which plants to have and which button to press on the toilet, Ms Murphy said.

"(Flexible work practices) are the cheap way of winning the hearts and minds of the people and if you are not doing it, you are an idiot," she said.

The panel said South Australia's prosperity depended on policies to improve workforce participation of the long term unemployed, women, immigrants and people with a disability.

"We need to be making sure that all South Australians are engaged and benefiting from the new economy because it is the people of South Australia, not our resources, who are the key to our future success, and much more attention needs to be paid to the human factor," Economic Development, Board Chair, Raymond Spencer said.

"Leaders (are important), both male and female, who understand that workers' needs change through their working life cycle and that retaining experienced, productive workers depends on policy adaption in our workplaces," he said.

"Frankly, it is important to have managers and leaders who walk the talk, making sure that workers, including managers, get access flexibility without penalty.

"There is no place for discrimination of any kind in the 21st century and it is counterproductive to maximising the promise of this state. Equal pay for equal work is not a cutting edge standard - it's a moral given."

"And we men must take the lead in modelling behaviour that demonstrates equality of all within our organisations."