"Let's make it work, baby”

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"Let's make it work, baby”, is not only the response that every career-focussed pregnant woman, remote worker or dad seeking paternity leave wants to hear from their employer but it’s also the title of flexible workplace relations campaigner and Melbourne based lawyer, Catherine Brooks new book out in May.

This week we chat with Catherine Brooks, Principal and Workplace relations specialist at Melbourne based law firm Moores about remote and flexible employment trends, breaking down traditional attitudes of employers, tips for broaching your boss and much more. 

How do you see the attitude towards work changing?

Many of my friends tell me that now they're returning to work after the second bout of parental leave, things have definitely shifted in relation to an acceptance of flexible work arrangements. As an employment lawyer, I'm also seeing a shift in how employers are responding to people (of both genders) wanting to work flexibly. With progressive employers focussing more on output, as opposed to input, we are seeing less of a push back when it comes to working from home or working out of normal 9-5 hours. Also - the more an employee can develop and build trust with their employer (that the work will be done) the easier it is for employees to get flexible work arrangements approved.

What are your top tips on how to break down the attitude amongst some companies that flexible work only benefits the employee? Can you provide examples of how it can benefit the broader organisation?

Offering flexible working arrangements means that employers can tap into a much broader and skilled resource pool. Many parents (mostly women) are out there looking for flexible work options and they're highly skilled and experienced, but they won't apply for the traditional office bound roles. If an employer is willing to consider all applicants and all options when it comes to how a role is performed, they're much more likely to gain top class employees.

Also, employees provided with flexible work options are much more likely to remain loyal and committed to a company. If a parent feels safe and supported by the leadership team, they will be unlikely to take that call from a recruiter.

Seeking flexible or remote working options can often mean giving something up, usually in the form of a pay cut or career advancement. Do you think it is possible to keep a career on track and find the flexibility you need, or do you always need to give something up?

You can definitely keep your career on track AND get flexible or remote working arrangements if you're prepared to be creative in your thinking and strategic about your decision making. Sure, you may feel like accepting a flexible working role means that you're taking a bit of a side-step in your trajectory, but if it means that you can stay in the job market and be a parent or carer this will benefit your superannuation, your earning capability and future promotion opportunities.

Why do you think some companies are hesitant to offer flexible work arrangements?

It's just the fear of the unknown. The (incorrect) belief that you have to have bums on seats to get work done. It takes a trailblazer to show the way and prove that it can be done. That can be tough for the trailblazer but oh so worth it if it's a success. Getting flexible work arrangements right also takes a commitment to trial and error. When I returned to work I had to try half a dozen different arrangements before I found the right option for my family, our clients and the team. It meant having honest discussions, being flexible in our approach and having supportive bosses willing to try different options. This kind of process takes time but my employer has won in the end as I'm loyal to them, committed to my client work and now able to support others wanting to work flexibly (both within and external to our firm).  

Do you have advice for employees who wish to broach management about their options?

I have so much advice on this topic that I actually wrote a book about flexible work arrangements and how to negotiate options to suit all parties. It's called "Let's make it work, baby!" as I really believe that if employees are equipped to open up the flexible work discussion with their employer then they're much more likely to get a successful result. Two tips that I go through in a lot of detail in my book are to always keep in touch during your parental leave. It's important that you keep abreast of any changes in the workplace and make it well known that you're returning post parental leave (even if you're not sure - better to secure your seat at the table). This will also help you start the discussions about how you're going to return and in what capacity (part-time, starting off doing some hours at home, etc). Secondly, don't be rigid in your approach when you request flexible work arrangements. Put a range of options on the table and be prepared to try out a number of options to see what suits both your interests but also the operational requirements of the company. It's a two way street and it may be in your financial interest to give a less preferred option a go rather than just saying no and resigning. Be upfront about what you'd prefer, but give your employer the ability to feel like they have choice and control - it will make the negotiation process just that - a negotiation rather than just a yes or no proposition.  

You have long been an advocate for the flexible working model. What changes have you seen in how companies view and offer flexibility and remote working opportunities?
When I was a young lawyer just starting out in the industry I was fortunate enough to work with a number of women working flexibly. They worked hard to put in place systems and processes to ensure that the work got done but that they could be home at night to see their children. I saw first hand that you could have both a great career and be an involved parent, but it takes a supportive workplace environment (both employer and colleagues) to make it work. What we now need to see is more men being given the opportunity to work flexibly. A CEO said to me recently "it won't be until I'm job sharing with a male that we'll know flexible work is truly entrenched as the norm". I know that my partner, who worked part-time alongside me and was a stay at home dad for a period of time, found it isolating and tough being the minority.  If companies can encourage men to be a part of the flexible work discussion even before they've become a parent then we may start seeing more men choose to spend some time at home or opting to work flexibly.  

What are some of the trends you’re seeing in remote and flexible employment?

Companies that focus on output, instead of input, are embracing flexible employment for all its benefits. We're also seeing a rise in corporates and not-for-profits offering school holiday programs to help parents stay in the workplace during these periods whilst still being able to provide activities and care for children in a cost-effective way.

What advice would you offer to more traditional companies, struggling with the concept of creating a more flexible work environment?

Try it out! Engage the help of a human resource consultant to set up mechanisms that enable people to work flexibly. Start small by giving people the ability to work from home, or out of normal hours, and measure output and productivity to determine success. Hire leaders that are willing to embrace flexible work and have them leave loudly when they're going home to attend an afternoon soccer event, or school concert. Leading from the top down and demonstrating that flexible work and productivity can work hand in hand is a good starting place.

Millennials are going to make up 75% of the workforce in five years. This is great for millennials but what about the Gen X’s or the working mums who have problems finding flexible work options?
Gen X's or working mums will vote with their feet and choose workplaces that are innovative and creative when it comes to working hours and productivity. Millennials don't differentiate between work and personal life - their whole world is about having a great career that sits alongside a wonderful life. As they demand flexible work options, Gen X's will benefit from a shift in the old method of working. Also - as the baby boomers transition down to retirement they too will see the benefits of flexible work arrangements. A whole new working era is just kicking off and the smart employers will embrace this as an opportunity - and benefit from getting the best and most loyal talent.

To find out more about Catherine's work or to purchase a copy of her book, please head over to https://www.catherinebrooks.community

Georgie Scott