Finding flexibility in flex workplace strategies: a case study from Westpac

Flexible workplace initiatives are on the rise with employees being afforded with greater freedom to decide ‘how’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ they work in an effort to accommodate an improved balance between work and life goals. Are employees taking up the offer, and how effective are such initiatives? Westpac Group’s “All In Flex” policy provides a case study to explore what these initiatives look like in practice, and to understand some of the ongoing challenges to mainstreaming flexibility across organisations.

A growing number of employees in Western countries report increasing pressures in effectively managing the balance between work and life. Added to this are macro-economic trends including an ageing population and increasing elder care demands, lack of women in leadership positions and a growth in dual career and single parent families. Workplace flexibility initiatives are being increasingly viewed as a pivotal solution to overcoming these challenges.

Flexible work arrangements provide employees with varying levels of freedom to decide ‘where’, ‘when’ and’ ‘how long’ they work, which are designed to promote increased work-life balance and increased job satisfaction. There is also mounting evidence that such programs assist organisations to attract and retain talent, while also boosting productivity levels.

Nevertheless, the results of CPA Australia’s Workplace Flexibility Survey 2016 confirm that, despite the increasing presence of such programs, 31% of respondents surveyed still perceive there to be a negative perception between such initiatives and future career progression.

Additionally, there is a growing awareness that these initiatives in and of themselves require flexibility to reflect the varied nature of work conducted by employees.

This article reviews an interesting real life case study from the Westpac Group on how to address these challenges and pairs it with research on flexibility traps and mitigation strategies.

An interesting flexibility case study – Westpac Group

An interesting case study on the implementation of flexible workplace programs is provided by the Westpac Group, Australia’s oldest bank.

Developed by Chief Executive Women, a not-for-profit organisation representing Australia’s most senior women leaders from the corporate, government, academic, and not-for-profit sectors, as part of a broader focus on documenting strategies to advance gender equity, Westpac’s case study connects its focus on flexibility to improving gender equity across the organisation.

This was reiterated by former Westpac CEO Gail Kelly: “we have now accompanied that 50% target with an extraordinary focus on flexibility. It is a big part of the key to unlocking the potential in people in the workplace… A workplace operating on the basis of empowerment, to design roles such that people can incorporate the elements of what’s in their life”

Westpac’s current All In Flex policy aims to ensure that all roles across Westpac are able to be performed flexibly and encompasses an array of operations including flexible work hours, mobile working, and job sharing. The policy also provides a range of leave options such as flexible lifestyle leave, career break, transition to retirement support, and parental/grandparental and carers leave. From June 2015, all jobs advertised have emphasised that the role is open to flexible working. Based on the most recent statistics available, 71% of Westpac Group employees work flexibly, with up to 89% of employees indicating that they would like to work flexibily by 2017.

Whilst all of this points in the right direction, leaders at Westpac acknowledge that challenges continue to exist in mainstreaming flexibility as a “legitimate practice” across the organisation. Some Westpac employees do not believe that flexible arrangements can work in the long term. Further, there have been instances where employees have trialled different part time work arrangements only to end up returning to the traditional working arrangement due to challenges in reducing their workload to match the reduced hours.

Avoiding the “flexibility traps”

Lessons learned from Westpac’s experience in implementing their All In Flex policy are consistent with aspects of the so-called “flexibility traps” identified by Kossek et al. in their 2015 article Balanced Workplace Flexibility: Avoiding the Traps:

1. Altered work-life relationships with unintended consequences trap: leads to reduced contact between flex users and other organisational stakeholders, which can lead to isolation and inefficiencies in communication and lagged completion of key work tasks. Flexible work initiatives can also change work-life relationships due to either job or family creep, the impact of which is either reduced overall work-life balance or reduced productivity.

2. Fairness trap: contributes to the perceived inequality and uneven distribution of flexibility access (by nonusers) and the possibility of nonusers engaging in backlash.

3. Culture of unbalanced flexibility: flexible work arrangements can undermine organisational culture if they do not appropriately balance employee needs for greater flexibility with the overall corporate objectives and culture.

In an effort to mitigate these traps when designing and implementing a workplace flexibility strategy Kossek et al argue that organisations should endeavour to incorporate the full range of stakeholders by:

• Ensuring that managers and employees become “flex-savvy” about the different types of flexibility options. This will assist those considering flexible work options to make informed decisions, while also reducing the potential negative effects for nonusers by improving their ability to work with flexibility users.

• Acknowledging that, whilst flexible work options can be viewed as an individual decision, a more effective option is to consider the whole workplace as a social system and to implement flexibility across it, albeit not in a “one size fits all” manner.

Concluding remarks

While positive steps are being made to provide employees with a range of flexible work initiatives (as demonstrated by the Westpac case study), implementation still presents a challenge.
Helpfully, Kossek and her team identify three flexibility traps and mitigation strategies. The Westpac case study points to the benefits of being flexible about flexibility – moving away from a rigid mode of implementation to one which is inherently flexible and therefore adaptive.

Further information

For more information please contact Rochel Hoffman (rochoffman@deloitte.com.au).

For more information about Westpac’s All In Flex policy please go here.

References
2015, ‘CEW Case Studies: Westpac’, Chief Executive Women, available at: https://www.westpac.com.au/content/dam/public/wbc/documents/pdf/aw/CEW_CaseStudy_Westpac_WebFinal.pdf

Kossek, E.E., Thompson, R.J. and Lautsch, B.A. 2015, ‘Balanced Workplace Flexibility: Avoiding the Traps’, California Management Review, Vol. 57, No. 4, Summer 2015, pp. 5-25

Whyman, P.B., Baimbridge, M.J, Buraimo, B.A. and Petrescu, A.I. 2015, ‘Workplace Flexibility Practices and Corporate Performance: Evidence from the British Private Sector’, British Journal of Management, Vol. 26, pp. 347-364


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