What exactly are flexible work arrangements?
Also known as work-life practices, flexible work arrangements encompass a wide range of organisational practices aimed at helping employees balance work and non-work responsibilities.
There are two categories of flexible work arrangements :
Support practices help employees manage family responsibilities directly. Examples include employer-provision of childcare or eldercare services, paid family leave, opportunities to work only during school term, and gradual return to work after having a child.
Flexibility practices help employees manage their work, so they are better able to manage family and non work-life responsibilities. Examples include part-time work, working from home, flexible start and finish times, job sharing, and compressed working in which employees work fewer days but longer hours on those days.
It is important to distinguish between these practices because they tackle different concerns. For example, some organisations may only provide support for issues faced by employees with children, but not for employees with other personal issues or requests. To fully reap the benefits of flexible work arrangements, organisations should engage with both forms of practice.
Benefits of flexible work arrangements
Women, in particular, often find that balancing their work and family roles is a barrier to workforce participation . Work gets in the way of managing the family, and family gets in the way of managing work ; a situation sometimes referred to as “work-life conflict”. One way organisations have tried to address this dilemma is through flexible work arrangements. Flexible work arrangements are now quite commonplace, with 60% of Australian organisations reporting their use .
Although flexible work arrangements are available to both women and men, women are the predominant users of these arrangements .
But flexible work arrangements are not just for women! The research is quite clear that a significant proportion of prospective employees – irrespective of gender- would like access to flexible work arrangements . In fact, there is no difference in endorsement of the importance of flexible work arrangements for people with children compared to those without . Organisations without appropriate flexible work arrangements may therefore be missing out on good employees!
The research is also clear that the conflict between work and family is damaging to both the individual and the organisation. Work-life conflict leads to negative outcomes for organisations such as increased absenteeism, turnover (employees leaving), reduced job performance and lower job engagement . At the individual level, employees experiencing work-life conflict experience physical and mental health issues. These employees can’t parent, or perform their job, as well as they’d like. Satisfaction on both the family and work fronts is affected .
If organisations can successfully implement flexible work arrangements, there can be a strong upside for both the organisation and the individual.
Risks for women who use flexible work arrangements
One of the issues associated with flexible work arrangements is the potential for gender stereotypes to arise. When women take up these arrangements (such as by working part-time, or leaving the office early for school pick-up duties) their choice can be seen as at odds with being suited to management roles . For many employers, the "ideal worker" is seen as someone who works full time and has a singular focus on work, without the distractions of a family. Unfortunately, women who engage in flexible work aren’t seen as fitting the ideal worker stereotype. Such assumptions show a 2nd generation gender bias that creates a barrier to women’s advancement. There is clear evidence that these stereotypes mean women who use flexible work arrangements are less likely to be promoted and even lead to a perception that they create more work for colleagues .
Effects on women’s promotion
Do flexible work arrangements actually help women move into management roles? The evidence is mixed.
Early research into the impact of flexible work arrangements on female representation at management level is contradictory. Some research finds a positive relationship between flexible work arrangements and percentage of female managers in an organisation after five years . Other research finds this relationship is constrained to only a few flexible work arrangement practices . More recent research suggests that flexible work arrangements lead to improvements in female representation in leadership roles, but only after a significant time lag (8 years in this study) .
Why might the benefit take time to occur? At this stage, we don’t know. It’s possible that women predominantly use flexible work arrangements when they have young children. These women may not yet be in senior roles, which might explain the time lag between flexible work arrangements and increases in women in senior roles .
Additionally, flexible work arrangements appear to work best when women make up at least 43% of the organisation’s workforce . This might be because there is greater acceptance of these arrangements in such environments, with less of the 2nd generation gender bias described above.
The unclear results and time lag between the use of flexible work arrangements and increases on female representation at senior levels is a clear indicator that flexible work arrangements on their own are insufficient for organisations seeking gender diversity at senior levels. A flexible work arrangements policy is only one part of the overall solution.
Tips for implementing FWAs
When implementing flexible working arrangements, cultural change is part of the goal. Steps organisations can take:
Tailor the flexible work arrangement to the employee group. Diagnose the suitability of work arrangements for your organization while also considering the needs and preferences of your individual workers. For example, organisations with older employees can consider the specific needs of this group of workers, such as improving access to carer’s leave to care for aging parents, but reducing the focus on access to childcare, which may be less relevant to this cohort of workers.
Involve peers in the diagnosis and design of flexible work arrangements. Ensure you have buy-in from all staff. This isn’t just a “women’s issue”, but is something that all staff can benefit from. Everyone needs to understand the business case and benefits of flexible working arrangements.
Train your managers! Managers need to understand the importance of flexible working arrangements, how to negotiate them, and how to manage them. A supportive manager is important in influencing whether a positive work-family culture exists.
Implementation of flexible work arrangements should include pilot testing, training, review and follow up. There should be guidelines regarding control, appraisal, security, technology, OH&S and other considerations. Start small! Make sure that staff who use flexible working arrangements are included in the organisation; they need to be included in all aspects of work, such as maintaining the important work-based social networks.
Review your IT arrangements to make sure flexible working arrangements can be implemented and used effectively.
Have a periodic review of flexible working arrangements, being open to ways to improve how they operate .
Document and disseminate outcomes.
Steps individuals can take:
This is tricky. For guidance on how to manage flexible work arrangements, women should view flexible working arrangements as negotiation discussions. When women negotiate, there can have serious negative outcomes. This is discussed in:
Additional links and resources
This resource from the Centre for Ethical Leadership, University of Melbourne provides a nice review of current research and practice. There are case studies included that provide specific examples of flexible working arrangements being used by organisations and those that individuals actually use.
Wood, R. & Sojo, V. (2013). Work/Life policies: Centre for Ethical Leadership reviews of the evidence. Available at