The challenge of workplace flexibility

Many of us have dragged ourselves back to work after a summer holiday. The return wasn’t helped by a somewhat cold and damp break that left a feeling of what could have been. Back among colleagues, we swapped holiday stories and reminded ourselves we’re fortunate compared with our cousins sweltering over the Ditch.

Time away from work gives us space to reflect on our values and what matters most in life. We might have resolved, again, this will be the year we accomplish a healthy work-life balance.

Who among us did not feel a tinge of envy learning that Vodafone NZ was giving its 2000 staff the chance to head home early at the end of each week for the rest of summer? A "summer hours" programme, running until the end of February, will let people finish work from 2pm onwards on Fridays. Staff rostered for Friday afternoons will get a full day in lieu.

A wider conversation is taking place about workplace flexibility.

Last August, before becoming Finland’s Prime Minister, Sanna Marin floated the idea of a four-day week or reducing the workday to six hours, so people could spend more time with their families. The idea sent some commentators into a flutter. However, the Finnish Government tweeted on January 7 the four-day week is not on its agenda.

Perpetual Guardian adopted the four-day week in 2018. The experiment for its more than 200 employees was closely studied by the Auckland University of Technology, which found benefits for employees and the organisation.

The eight-hour working day is implied in the Minimum Wage Act 1983, which sets out a maximum 40-hour, five-day work week as the norm for employment agreements.

In 2014, the United Kingdom brought in legislation giving millions of employees the right to request flexible working.

University of Otago senior lecturer in human resource management Paula O’Kane supports the idea that employees who work six-hour days get sick less, have lower stress and work harder. Workplaces are trending towards flexibility but much too slowly, she says. She sees reluctance to think about how we can organise work differently, adding too many are stuck in the traditional 40-hour working week, and this is way behind most European countries.

Organisational experts see the challenge is in enabling more autonomy which involves introducing and exploring methods of performance management that are output based, rather than input. This would allow employees to be more flexible in how they work to enable better work-life balance, and this relates to better outcomes for the organisation.

However, another stream of research found creating output-based measures is really challenging for managers.

So what’s holding us back? Dr O’Kane suggests lack of creativity from organisations, thinking that they can’t make flexibility work when most can if they allowed themselves to (re)envisage what work looks like.

As she says, the four-day week, or going home early on a Friday are only examples. Each needs to think about how flexibility will work for them.

There is a catch when comparing New Zealand workplaces with most European nations, and that is accessibility to skilled labour. Our work pool is smaller, limiting employers’ options.

The challenge for many organisations is attracting and retaining workers with the requisite skillsets to fit their needs. Job-sharing, reduced hours, and shorter working weeks might sound attractive. Happy employees make better workers. But so too, productivity across the group cannot be compromised. Some organisations — such as health providers, utilities, tourism, to name a few — depend on continuous service delivery. Livelihoods depend on the prosperity of organisations, thus supporting healthy economies.

Other questions must be considered. How would people get by if their wages were reduced in keeping with working fewer hours? Presumably wages would stay unchanged. But would that not inflate employer costs? Who would bear the brunt?

Maybe we need another holiday to think about it.



Part time employment is a misnomer. You just stay on, off the clock, until the 'full time' work is done.


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