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Human Capital Matters 2013/7: Flexible work

August 2013, Issue 7

Editor’s Note to Readers

Welcome to the seventh edition of Human Capital Matters for 2013—the digest for leaders and practitioners with an interest in human capital and organisational capability. This edition focuses on Flexible Work.

Flexible working arrangements include:

  • changing hours of work (e.g. working less hours or changing start or finish times)
  • changing patterns of work (e.g. working ‘split shifts’ or job sharing)
  • changing the place of work (e.g. working from home, teleworking).

It is Government policy that APS agencies’ enterprise agreements and other workplace arrangements should allow flexible work arrangements to be agreed between the agency head and employees. The 2011 Australian Public Service Bargaining Framework supporting guidance advises that all APS workplace arrangements (including enterprise agreements, common law arrangements, determinations made under the Public Service Act, and workplace policies and practices) are to incorporate flexible attraction and retention initiatives, including incorporating terms and conditions which assist employees in maintaining a healthy work-life balance and improve diversity. Such arrangements include but are not limited to:

  • training support and study leave
  • parental leave above minimum legislative entitlements
  • flexible working hours and employee initiated part-time work
  • ceremonial or cultural leave (including NAIDOC leave)
  • purchased leave and annual leave at half pay
  • career break schemes.

While flexible work is often associated with employers who are parents or who have caring responsibilities, such arrangements can be provided to any employee.

About Human Capital Matters

Human Capital Matters seeks to provide APS leaders and practitioners with easy access to the issues of contemporary importance in public and private sector human capital and organisational capability. It has been designed to provide interested readers with a monthly guide to the national and international ideas that are shaping human capital thinking and practice.

Comments and suggestions welcome

Thank you to those who took the time to provide feedback on earlier editions of Human Capital Matters. Comments, suggestions or questions regarding this publication are always welcome and should be addressed to: humancapitalmatters [at] apsc.gov.au. Readers can also subscribe to the mailing list through this email address.


Fair Work Ombudsman, enewsletter Issue 5, The What, Why and How of flexible workplaces, 29 August 2012

The eNewsletter is aimed at employers in general and not specifically the APS. It notes that flexible workplaces help employees balance their work and personal lives and can increase their productivity at work and help employers attract high quality staff.

It includes the following Best Practice Tip:

Consider making the flexible working arrangements at your business available to everyone—not just employees with young children or caring responsibilities. Different people use flexible working arrangements for different reasons—e.g. so that they can travel more, renovate their home or as they transition into retirement. Having inclusive flexible working arrangements that apply to everyone can help staff feel supported and respected at work.

The material contained in this enewsletter report has been developed by the Fair Work Ombudsman.

AIM Insights, Managing in a Flexible Environment, White Paper, November 2012

The White Paper highlights that across Australia there is a growing demand for more flexible work arrangements. Working part time, staggering start and finish times, teleworking, taking extended leave, staging retirement or phasing a return from leave—all these and more are finding their way into workplaces. It argues that flexible work arrangements can bring great benefits to both employers and employees. These include:

  • businesses finding enhanced opportunities for talent management, greater productivity and cost savings from the reduced need for office space, amongst other benefits
  • employees being better able to manage childcare and other family responsibilities, pursue study and recreational interests and avoiding long and costly commutes.

The White Paper encourages managers to identify their organisation’s most pressing issues and concerns, and consider how flexible work can be part of the answer.

Although there is much research on the topic, there is a gap when it comes to a focus on the cultural and management challenges associated with making flexible work practices actually work. The White Paper notes that it is clear from the consultation and the literature that the attitude and skills of managers are make-or-break factors in implementing flexible work arrangements. It notes that managers may need support in managing the implementation of flexible work through:

  • more training
  • improved skills in negotiation and communication
  • better performance management techniques
  • higher levels of organisation
  • the capacity to coordinate complexity
  • a strategic ability to see the long term benefits even if short term costs seem high.

A core management task is to identify the resources needed for any particular project, including the number of staff or the number of hours that will be needed. The paper argues that the challenge is not fundamentally different in a flexible work environment; however the arrangements may be more complex. Managers may need to:

  • ensure ‘coverage’ for client-facing tasks
  • juggle rosters
  • carry out detailed forecasting of work volumes
  • engage additional staff, possibly including casual or contract staff, to cover specific tasks or hours
  • identify or engage staff who want to job-share.

The paper suggests that in some workplaces, managers may need to do more than simply pay attention to part time and casual rosters or designing flexibility into individual workplans: they may need to re-engineer existing roles to quarantine some kinds of tasks into specific “on call” roles.

The White Paper notes that whether managing an individual staff member working flexibly, or managing in a workplace characterised by flexible work arrangements, managers need skills in negotiating and monitoring such arrangements. The negotiation may require balancing competing interests of several employees, and ensuring all employees are treated fairly. Transparency in decision making and clear communication are likely to assist all staff to feel fairly-treated.

The Australian Institute of Management (AIM) is a professional body for managers. The sole purpose of AIM is to promote the advancement of education and learning in the field of management and leadership for commerce, industry and government. It is not for profit entity with branches in every Australian state and territory.

NBN enabled telework: The economic and social impact on labour force participation, Report by Colmar Brunton Research and Deloitte Access Economics for the Commonwealth of Australia as represented by the Department of Broad, Communications and the Digital Economy (2012)

This report investigates the degree to which participation in the labour force may increase with the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) and the increased telework opportunities it will provide. This study involved qualitative and quantitative research, leading to economic modelling to estimate the impacts of NBN-enabled telework on labour force participation, employment and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the Australian economy.

It was found that the use of the term ‘telework’ was generally not familiar. Concepts such as ‘working from home’ are more easily understood. Communication around telework requires clear communication of what it does and does not include. For the purpose of this report, ‘telework’ was defined as working from home or remotely (away from the office) one or more days per week.

The report found that a small proportion of mature workers indicated they already had a formalised arrangement with their employer to work from home on a regular basis (16%), each week or fortnight, and this was occurring across a diverse range of sectors. The report suggests that this demonstrates that telework is still in its infancy in the labour force. A very large proportion of mature workers (60%) indicated they would take up a telework position and delay their retirement. This finding was prevalent across a wide range of sectors, mostly at the professional or management level. An additional 6% indicated they would change industry to telework; however, not all current teleworkers wanted to delay their retirement.

A small proportion of part-time and casual workers are already engaging in telework (13%) under a formalised agreement with their employer, and a large additional proportion (62%) reported that they would take up telework if a position became available to them. This provides an opportunity for telework to address levels of underemployment within this audience: a third of part-time and casual workers indicating they would prefer to work on average 15.2 additional hours per week. Of this group eager to telework, a large proportion would want to do this for the majority of the week (an average of 24.1 from home, out of a total of 29.4 hours), but would still welcome some contact with the office. This is not surprising, as a key concern about telework is social isolation.

Part-time workers with family/carer commitments who are currently in paid employment have found positions that reflect the required flexibility to work around their required commitments. This may mean that they work fixed part-time hours; fixed hours that are structured around particular timed commitments (such as picking children up from school); or that they work flexible hours.

The report notes that telework is a concept that is associated with low levels of awareness and moderate levels of scepticism from employers and employees. The concept of telework and the capabilities of NBN-enabled telework are yet to be widely tested and demonstrated.

Those with a disability reported mixed experiences in relation to their ability to participate in the workforce.

For those that had developed a physical disability over the course of their employment (such as from a degenerative injury or a motor vehicle accident) generally reported that their employer had been accommodating (at least to some degree) in terms of their physical limitations. Mobility and the ability to actively manage pain or discomfort associated with their physical disability were the two critical factors identified as needing to be actively considered in terms or developing appropriate work arrangements with their employer. With the right arrangements, these participants indicated they could be equally as productive as any of their able bodied colleagues. Importantly, it was evident that those who had a more specialised role or position generally reported having more bargaining power in terms of negotiating suitable employment arrangements, whereas lower skilled workers were observed to have less bargaining power.

Some participants currently employed in flexible work reported difficulties in negotiating flexible conditions with their employer. Some were intimidated by making the request and others struggled to present a strong case to support their request. Similarly, many of those who were willing to find work that would meet their flexibly requirements found it difficult to be open with potential employers about the limitations on their time.

Colmar Brunton Research is an independent Australian owned market research agency. Deloitte Access Economics is an Australian provider of economic consulting, modelling, and forecasting services to the public and private sectors.

Natalie Skinner, Claire Hutchinson and Barbara Pocock, The Big Squeeze: Work, Life and Care in 2012 - The Australian Work and Life Index, Centre for Work + Life, University of South Australia (2012)

The Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI) survey measures perceptions of: ‘General interference’ (i.e. the frequency that work interferes with responsibilities or activities outside work); ‘Time strain’ (i.e. the frequency that work restricts time with family or friends); ‘Work-to-community interference’ (i.e. the frequency that work affects workers’ ability to develop or maintain connections and friendships in their local community); Satisfaction with overall ‘work-life balance’; Frequency of ‘feeling rushed or pressed for time’.

The AWALI survey included a randomly selected representative group of 2,887 working Australians. The majority of respondents work in the private (62.4 per cent) or government (24.4 per cent) sectors, with a minority employed in a family business/farm or a NGO. AWALI 2012 is the fifth AWALI survey, with previous surveys carried out in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

The survey found that around one quarter of the Australians surveyed report that work frequently (often or almost always) interferes with other life activities. Other findings included:

  • Women’s work-life outcomes are worse than men’s when differences in work hours are taken into account;
  • Mothers have worse work-life outcomes than fathers, whether single or partnered;
  • Managers and professionals have worse work-life interference than other occupations;
  • Work-life outcomes are worse for those in female-dominated industries, and in jobs that involve interaction and service provision to others. These include retail, accommodation and food services and education and training, allowing for differences in work hours;
  • Workers in the mining industry have the worst work-life outcomes, probably reflecting their long average working hours;
  • Long hours and a poor fit between actual and preferred working hours are both associated with worse work-life outcomes;
  • Most of those who work long hours would prefer not to.

The report raises the influence of workplace culture. It is reported that in many workplaces getting flexibility is difficult especially where standard working arrangements are dominant, the climate is hostile to flexibility, or workers’ anticipate a stigma arising from a request for flexibility.

AWALI 2012 included three measures of work intensification, including the frequency of working at high speed, tight deadlines and work overload, finding that work pressures affect between 30-40 per cent of the workforce:

  • 36.8 per cent of workers say they are working at very high speed for three quarters of their working time or more (40.2 per cent of women, 33.9 per cent of men);
  • 40.6 per cent say they work to tight deadlines three-quarters of the time or more (38.7 per cent of women, 42.2 per cent of men);
  • 31.7 per cent believe that they have too much work for one person to do (33.2 per cent of women, 30.3 per cent of men);
  • Women are more likely to work at high speed for most of the time, and parents and sole parents in particular, are most likely to report having to work at very high speed for most of their working time;
  • These perceived rates of intensification are higher than in Europe using similar measures;
  • Higher rates of work intensification—on all of the above measures—are associated with worse work-life interaction for both women and men.

In relation to working from home:

  • 16 per cent of respondents work at home on a regular basis, with little difference by gender, parenting status or work hours;
  • Taking work home on an irregular basis is more common; with 40 per cent of workers reporting this (some workers did both). Parents are more likely to do this, as are part-time workers and women. Just over half of full-time women report taking work home;
  • 44.2 per cent of respondents worked from home sometimes (whether regularly or not);
  • Many of those who work paid hours at home do so to be more productive (57.6 per cent gave this reason), while a similar proportion do so for flexibility (58.6 per cent) and a smaller proportion to catch up on work (48.2 per cent);
  • Unpaid hours are motivated more by catching up on work: 70.5 per cent gave this reason, followed by ‘having too much to do’ (63.0 per cent). 62.3 per cent said they were motivated to work unpaid hours because they enjoy their job. Just over a third believe that their unpaid hours will assist their career development;
  • The worst work-life outcomes occur amongst those who work both paid and unpaid hours at home, followed by those who do unpaid work at home, and then those who work paid hours at home—but all are worse than those who do not take work home.

The report also explored the difference that public, private, non-government employment made to work-life interference. There was little difference in work-life outcomes between workers from different sectors, whether work hours are statistically controlled or not. The authors concluded that gender, the number of hours worked, and the industry and occupation of employment are the most important associations with work-life interference rather than the sector of employment (i.e. public or private employment).

The Centre for Work + Life (CW+L) is part of the Hawke Research Institute at the University of South Australia. It is a national research centre that investigates work and its intersection with household, family, community and social life in Australia. Dr Natalie Skinner is the project manager of the Australian Work and Life Index and Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Work + Life. Claire Hutchinson is a PhD Scholar. Prof Barbara Pollock is the Director of the Centre.

Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, The University of Melbourne, Mark Wooden and Yin-King Fok, Working at home: Whatever happened to the revolution?, Families, Incomes and Jobs, Volume 8: A Statistical Report on waves 1 to 10 of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey (2013)

The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey aims to provide a new type of social statistics for Australia, and to investigate new methods of measuring change and social trends.

This eighth volume of the HILDA Survey Annual Statistical Report examines data from the first ten waves of the HILDA Survey. As in previous volumes, it contains two main parts. Part A contains short articles on changes in key aspects of life in Australia that are measured by the HILDA Survey every year. Four broad and very much overlapping ‘life domains’ are covered: household and family life; incomes and economic wellbeing; labour market outcomes; and life satisfaction, health and wellbeing.

The second part of the report, Part B, contains articles on irregular topics, to a significant extent influenced by wave-specific questions included in the survey. In Wave 10, the main focus of the ‘rotating’ content in the interview component of the survey was household wealth. Correspondingly, much of Part B is given over to analysis of the wealth data, with articles on: the distribution and dynamics of household wealth; the composition of household wealth; home wealth; and household debt dynamics. It also contains an article examining the incidence and extent of employed people working from home, and the characteristics of workers who do so. It is this article that has been singled out in this edition of Human Capital Matters.

In the HILDA Survey, work at home is based on the respondents’ reports of their usual working hours. Measures are constructed of the incidence and extent of working at home within the Australian workforce. More specifically, a descriptive statistical analysis is provided that examines:

  • the incidence and extent of working at (or from) home;
  • trends in that incidence over the period 2001 to 2010;
  • the characteristics of people who work at home, and how they compare with the large majority of workers who do not; and
  • the extent to which working at home is a temporary or permanent phenomenon.

A relatively large proportion of the Australian employed workforce report usually working at least some hours at home each week in their main job—22.8 per cent in Wave 10 (the fieldwork for which mostly occurred during the period August to December 2010). The large majority (71 per cent) of people reporting working at least one hour at home only work 10 hours or less each week at home. As a result, hours worked at home account for a relatively small proportion of total hours worked—7 per cent.

The HILDA Survey data is one which defines a home worker to be any worker who works the majority of their hours in the main job at home. In 2010 this was a group that represented just fewer than 5 per cent (4.9 per cent) of all employed workers, and accounted for 3.4 per cent of all working hours. Employees only accounted for 22.6 per cent of people who work the majority of their working hours at home compared to self-employed workers.

It is concluded that the incidence of working at home in Australia fell during the decade to 2010.

The survey found that the likelihood of being someone who works the majority of their working hours at home:

  • rises with age (and is especially pronounced among the very oldest cohort),suggesting that home working may be used by some workers as a strategy for transitioning into or delaying retirement;
  • is somewhat more pronounced among immigrants from an English-speaking country;
  • increases with the distance people live from a major city;
  • is more common among couples (though these differences may be driven in large part by correlations with age);
  • is relatively more common among both the most educated and the least educated; and
  • is more common among people with long-term health conditions and disabilities that are work-limiting.

People who spend the majority of their working hours at home also have quite distinctive job characteristics. They tend to be concentrated in managerial, professional and clerical occupation groups, and are relatively highly concentrated in the agriculture, forestry and fishing, and professional, scientific and technical services industries.

The HILDA survey reveals that the best predictor of what labour force state an individual will be in one year from now is their current labour force state. Nevertheless, it is also clear that there is considerable movement out of home working. About one in every three employed persons who currently work the majority of their hours at home will one year later be working considerably fewer hours at home; 13 per cent will be working zero hours at home and 17 per cent, while still working some hours at home, will no longer be spending the majority of their work time at home.

The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey is funded by the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. The opinions, comments and analysis expressed in this article are those of the authors.

Last reviewed: 
6 June 2018