Let’s get flexible: capturing the business benefits of flexible working

How do we capture the business benefits of flexible working? The property industry gathered this week at the Hotel Realm to explore this question and examine pathways to boost the number of women in the property and construction industry beyond its current 12 per cent.

Our panel of male senior industry leaders – who were all deliberately chosen because we need more men to engage with the diversity debate – agreed that more flexible workplaces are central to getting the best out of both female and male employees.

Andrew Metcalfe AO says he’s seen enormous changes to the working world during his career.

Now a partner with EY, Metcalfe rose through the ranks of the public service to become Secretary of a number of federal government departments, including Immigration and Citizenship, and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Metcalfe said workplaces have changed over the course of his career from being “heavily male-dominated and centred around a fixed set of working hours” to places that “accommodate the extraordinary diversity we see in our community and provide flexibility to get the best out of people”.

As Metcalfe reminded us, flexible and diverse working environments aren’t just to accommodate the female workforce. “One in four Australians are born overseas. Successful companies need to embrace diversity to tap into that talent,” he said.

For EY, the business case for workplace flexibility is clear. “We aim to hire the very best people, and are competing with the other ‘big four’ firms, as well as with Treasury and the Reserve Bank,” Metcalfe explained.

“If we aren’t providing an attractive workplace that is amenable to people’s needs – that provides the opportunity to take time off for study, travel overseas or assume parental responsibilities – they will go elsewhere,” he said.

According to Simon Butt, Chief Executive Officer of leading commercial construction firm Manteena, flexibility in the construction industry can be a challenge. However, “flexibility is a state of mind” and we need to think beyond how we accommodate flexible working hours.

Most employees at Manteena do need to be on site early, but “we try to embrace flexibility in other ways. Accommodating family commitments ensures better continuity with our staff, improves productivity and reduces the amount of sickies people take. In a working world where people change careers quickly, having a flexible approach helps us retain people for longer and save on replacement costs,” Butt told the audience.

Alastair Swayn, Principle Director of Daryl Jackson Alastair Swayn, has built a highly-successful architecture firm that has focused on the “quality of work people do, rather than when they do it.” While Swayn’s practice includes 35 per cent female employees, he concedes it remains a struggle to attract and retain women.

However, Swayn agrees that the mobile modern day working world makes it easier than ever to accommodate a range of work styles and preferences – whether that’s part-time, working from home or needing time off to look after sick kids.

The benefits of more flexible working are clear. There’s no better way to attract and retain talented employees, build employee loyalty and ensure team continuity, encourage diversity of thinking, boost productivity – and profit with it.

Catherine Carter is the ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia