Future New Zealand: The new world of workplace flexibility

There is a whole range of forces driving massive changes in our workplaces. The result? A more flexible and collaborative, but increasingly insecure, workforce.
Massey University professor Tim Bentley.
Massey University professor Tim Bentley.

Our workforces are entering a new age of flexibility, driven by new digital technologies, globalisation, environmental pressures, changing demographics and new forms of social interaction and organising. But flexibility is a double-edged sword that can be both good and bad for workers.

The good: flexible working

Technology has transformed how, when and where work routines and personal activities are conducted. One critical and rapidly growing development in working practices, enabled by digital technology, is the notion of 'anywhere, anytime working', also known as flexible working.

Studies from several countries have shown productivity benefits from flexible working. Workers save time and energy by not commuting at peak times, or at all; they have increased autonomy and uninterrupted working time; such arrangements also provide for greater work-life balance, increased individual wellbeing and retention within the workforce.

In today's workplace, flexible working is no longer thought of as a perk, but as a legitimate option for not only those with care responsibilities, but anyone who does 'knowledge' work.

Organisations are rethinking what work is - rather than a place, work is now a process than can be done anywhere.

An increasing number of organisations internationally are adopting flexible ways of working, including working from home and co-working centres and hubs.

While accurate statistics are hard to find, it is clear that many workers around the globe now work remotely. For example, around one-quarter of European workers were identified as being remote workers as long ago as 2010. Current information also indicates an increasing trend of work mobility in this part of the world.

A joint Massey University and AUT study of over 1700 staff across 50 Australian and New Zealand organisations found 89 per cent worked remotely at least some time during the working week. More than half worked from home at least one day per week.

Flexible working is particularly desirable for digital natives, with a recent Dutch study of Generation Y (18-25 year olds) workers finding 87 per cent would like to work in a mobile way. These and other studies suggest there will be an increasing demand from employees for flexibility in the coming years.

So how prepared are New Zealand organisations to meet this challenge?

The answer can be found by looking across the broad employment environment in this country. At government level, there is no one body responsible for promoting this aspect of the digital economy, as far as we can see.

With a lack of leadership at national and industry level, our research tells us that most organisations do not have formal policy nor formalised work arrangements in this area, although most are aware of the potential technology brings and the need for supporting new ways of working.

Many managers are stuck in outmoded ways of thinking and strongly resist new forms of working -particularly those where the employee cannot be readily monitored. This is largely a matter of trust!

This is a major cultural restraint towards achieving significant growth in digital productivity and should be an important focus for industry and government. When you overlay legislation changes around flexibility, this becomes a key issue for organisations to grapple with.

The bad: insecure employment

While many workers are demanding and gaining the benefits of flexible working arrangements, there is a growing proportion of our working population who are becoming the working poor. These low skilled and unskilled workers compete for service roles with poor pay and conditions and, increasingly, insecure employment contracts.

The worst of these is known as zero-hours contracts - a punitive contracting arrangement that provides only disadvantage to the worker and high flexibility to the employer. The government has fortunately resisted the advance of such contracting practices in New Zealand to date and should be applauded for this. But other similarly punitive contracting arrangements remain and are growing in popularity among employers.

Within the next decade, technology and other forces will fundamentally shift the way business is done, the way we work and how we live.

The lack of union membership outside the public sector and the increasing casualisation of the workforce means that many workers are not protected by employment legislation and have little or no voice in matters affecting their work. This is a challenge for government to grapple with now, but there seems little sign of policy making in this area, although the Labour Party's Future of Work Commission is taking stock of these and other issues.

Within the next decade, technology and other forces will fundamentally shift the way business is done, the way we work and how we live. A New Zealand business environment that is flexible, future-ready and prepared to exploit opportunities presented by these changes is essential to our future economic and social wellbeing.

If we are to grasp these opportunities, government and organisations must make future-proofed policy decisions and put in place practices that improve organisational and individual outcomes in the future of work.

Getting the best from an ageing workforce

Population and workforce ageing is a global trend and the challenge New Zealand faces is considerable. Among OECD countries, New Zealand recorded the second highest employment rate of people aged 55-64 years in 2012 and 2013 and third highest for people aged 65-69 years in 2012.

Given the prevailing stereotypes held by many about the working capabilities and limitations of older people, Massey University and AUT conducted research with a large number of New Zealand businesses and individual older workers to see how well prepared we are as a nation to meet the challenge of an ageing workforce.

Interestingly, older workers plan to retire at an average age of 66 years, that's one year beyond the age of eligibility for New Zealand Superannuation currently. But the bad news is that many believe they will not be financially able to retire until later - with an average realistic retirement age of about 67-and-a-half years.

So, how will organisations best ensure the continued positive engagement of workers who are ageing and might otherwise have liked to retire?

Graduating retirement allows older workers time to gradually reduce their work time and financial dependence on work, and to develop life outside of work.

Our study showed that the two key things older workers want if they are to remain productively employed are recognition and respect and flexible working arrangements. The good news for employers is that neither of these need cost anything, and both are good practice for organisations wishing to engage and retain their valued staff - regardless of age.

But organisations need to do more than this if they wish to maximise the opportunities that an older and more experienced workforce can offer. Jobs need re-thinking and redesigning so that the capabilities and limitations that come with ageing are considered.

Redesigned jobs should build in opportunities for mentoring and skill transfer, as well as increased rest time and more autonomy and variety in work. Many older workers have grandparenting or community responsibilities and value flexibility around where and when they work. This, according to our study participants, is more important than pay rates or other conditions.

Another approach that should be attractive to both older workers and organisations is graduated retirement. Why do we need to work until the date of our retirement and then abruptly stop? This seems psychologically and socially unhealthy - unless you hate your job. It is also potentially unhealthy for the organisation, which will suddenly say goodbye to a wealth of knowledge and skills.

Graduating retirement allows older workers time to gradually reduce their work time and financial dependence on work, and to develop life outside of work. For the employer, it provides flexibility and helps retain and transfer vital skills to the next generation of workers.

- NZ Herald

Tim Bentley is a Professor of Work and Organistion at Massey University’s School of Management and a founding member of Massey’s Healthy Work Group.

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