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Making Flexibility Work For Us

by Amanda Threlfall

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“Flexibility” is one of those words that sounds so positive when you hear it, like “birthday cake” or “surplus”. But like birthday cakes and surpluses, it’s important to be clear about the type of flexibility on offer, and who is going to enjoy it most. 

No one* wants a fruit and nut cake for their birthday, and no one wants flexibility that puts all the power in the hands of the employer.

It’s funny how some problems can be solved immediately if the motivation is there. At the start of the pandemic, when solutions to problems had to be cobbled together to deal with “unprecedented” times, a fire was lit under some previously-immovable practices. 

Once full lockdowns were implemented and social distancing was being looked at as the way to stem the tide of the pandemic, overcrowding on public transport was addressed with staggered work times so that everyone wasn’t commuting at the same time. Rush hour was effectively ended, because the motivation was there. 

Likewise, after years of saying that having people work from home was not feasible, employers suddenly found a way to make it work. Many workers found it really suited them and their lifestyles without affecting their productivity in the slightest. Many workers found just the opposite, but that speaks to the need for flexibility rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Women, especially, want flexibility

The appetite for working from home is there, but it’s important to make sure it is done properly. 

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, two in five people with a job (41 per cent) worked from home at least once a week in February 2021, compared with 24 per cent at least once a week before March 2020.

One other unsurprising story told by the ABS survey data is that “employed women (17 per cent) were more likely than employed men (11 per cent) to want to increase the amount of work done from home.”

The gendered nature of the need for flexibility cannot be overstated. With women still performing the overwhelming majority of unpaid work in the household and the caring responsibilities in families, flexible working arrangements can be used to great effect in easing the demands of work and home life. 

Nearly 45% of all women with children spend more than five hours each week supervising or caring for them – more than a third spend over 20 hours. By contrast just 32% of men spend more than five hours a week and a mere 17% do more than 20 hours watching over or caring for their children. These are not pandemic statistics. In fact, they are pretty much unchanged from years of prior survey data. 

The ideal solution would be for men to step up and do more of the unpaid labour in the household. In the meantime, flexible working arrangements can be a way to ease the burden disproportionately carried by women. 

Even for myself, who has no children or caring responsibilities, I enjoy flexibility simply because it improves my quality of life!

I get time to exercise and even do the unpaid labour of looking after myself. Increased flexibility has benefits for everyone.

The Dark Side of the Home Office

Of course, there is the opposite side of the coin when flexibility stops working for workers and only benefits the boss. 

Many workers have reported an erosion of the boundary between their work life and their home life as a result of carrying out the two in the same physical space. It results in bosses feeling like they have a right to intrude where they wouldn’t normally belong. Workers report being unable to switch off from communications devices, their bosses expecting them to be reachable by emails or phone at all hours. This is why, along with flexibility, the idea of an enforceable “right to disconnect” has been gaining popularity in the past year. 

Increasingly advanced remote tracking and monitoring technology is also a huge risk, and something that has largely gone unrecognised by regulators up to this point. This absolutely must be addressed if workers are going to be adopting flexible working arrangements like working from home.

Flexibility without mutual trust and dignity is not true flexibility at all. 

Going forward, I believe we are likely to see far more flexibility in the workplace. Things that we used to view as inviolable, like the need to physically be present in the workplace or the rigidity of the work day are going to become more fluid. We have to make sure, using our power in collective bargaining, that the “workplaces” (whether physical or not) we spend so much of our lives in are not dictated by employers seeking to maximise output with no regard for quality of life. They are just as much our spaces as theirs, and we will have a say over how we will exist in them. 

(*Some people may want a fruit and nut cake. Apologies for any offense caused by this statement. We are a broad movement and our diversity is our strength.)

Amanda has previously been an Industrial Officer at the Queensland branch of the CFMEU Mining & Energy Division and AEU Victoria. She brings a passion for women’s rights at work and fairness in the gig economy to her new role as Assistant Secretary of VTHC.

“Flexibility” is one of those words that sounds so positive when you hear it, like “birthday cake” or “surplus”. But like birthday cakes and surpluses, it’s important to be clear about the type of flexibility on offer, and who is going to enjoy it most. 

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