Carol Brown is CEO of diversity consultancy Diversitas.
What trends are you seeing among small businesses in terms of flexible working?
There's been a lot of focus on flexible work in the corporate sector, but SMEs in New Zealand have been early adopters of informal flexibility for some time. That's largely been driven by the culture of smaller organisations where the structure is usually flatter, and there's more collective decision making and collaborative working. In SMEs the relationships between the decision makers and employees are usually a lot closer, which can create an environment of trust and information sharing that leads to a greater acceptance of flexibility around hours of work and location.
A hallmark of flexibility in SMEs to date though is it has been very manager dependent, as opposed to being a systemic way of working. So you'll get some managers who say 'yes it's great and I'll allow it' while you get other managers who say 'I don't like it and I don't want it'. So the legislation around flexible working that was introduced in March last year serves to formalise arrangements and put certain rights and obligations on employers and employees.
But we are still seeing a number of business leaders opposed to formalising flexible work because they're afraid they'll 'lose control' of their employees and end up not being able to manage the influx of requests. I think that's borne largely out of a lack of understanding of the current legislation.
What do you think are some particular areas where there's a lack of understanding?
I think there are a few. For example, what many business owners don't understand is flexibility now applies to all roles and employees can ask for a flexible arrangement at any point in their employment life cycle. Also the legislation gives employees the right to a process to apply for a flexible working arrangement, but it doesn't give them the right to an outcome. Business owners and managers still have the right to deny a request for flexible work if it doesn't meet certain criteria around the business being able to operate effectively.
What are some of the benefits you see smaller businesses reaping when they get flexible working right?
I think the benefits for small and large businesses are relatively similar.
In New Zealand we have an increasingly diverse workforce, which means businesses are having to juggle lots of different worker needs to keep people engaged in the workforce. And although the workforce has never been as demographically diverse as it is now, one common factor that binds workers across the spectrum is the desire to balance their work/life needs. The drivers are different for different people but the net outcome is the same: people are wanting to create more sustainable arrangements with their work where they're not having to pay a price either personally or professionally. So adopting flexible work design as a strategic part of your people practices means you're able to attract the best talent and keep them engaged in your organisation. The research shows that when workers achieve a work/life balance they're more productive and give their best discretionary effort.
What are three key pieces of advice you'd have for small business owners to get the most out of flexible working?
• Develop an understanding of what the megatrends are in today's workforce and why flexibility is here to stay. I predict the full time permanent employee will be the anomaly in 20 years' time.
• Familiarise yourself with the legislation and what it really means for you and your employees.
• Engage with your employees to come up with solutions that will work for them and for your business. When you work together as a business, that's when you achieve the best results.