Making the most out of flexible working in the public sector

Renee Leon

Image from Pexels by Ekaterina Bolotsova

With ongoing demand for work flexibility, the public sector is continuing to refine the way it provides adaptable working conditions. Our most recent Work with Purpose guests – Professor Clare Kelliher from Cranfield University, Dr Fiona Buick from UNSW Canberra, and Adam Fennessy PSM, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry – share tips on how organisations can manage and implement flexible working effectively. 

Flexibility may mean different things to different people – this is why it requires organisations to take a tailored approach with each employee.

With as many different approaches as there are employees, a first step should always be identifying what kind of flexibility an employee really needs, our Work with Purpose experts say.

Match arrangements with the employees’ needs

Clare Kelliher, professor of work and organisation at Cranfield University, says that this understanding is crucial to set up the right kind of arrangements and support. 

“Ultimately, we’re looking for a set of circumstances where employees have enough flexibility to match the demands of their non-work lives, whatever those might be – caring activities for children or eldercare for example, but also the other things that are important to them – with the demands of their work.”

To do this, Dr Fiona Buick, senior lecturer at UNSW Canberra, emphasises the need for purposeful discussions about hybrid working, which optimise individual productivity and meet organisational goals.

“In my mind, there’s a purposeful and explicit approach where discussions are held about what our priorities are, what tasks we need to do, what needs to be done in person or together, what can be done together virtually.”

“This is about addressing individual needs but also recognising that we need to meet team goals and requirements… It’s trying to get the balance of all of that, and of course, leadership plays an integral role in enabling that to happen,” she adds.

Leaders must model

More on the role of leaders, Adam Fennessy PSM, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry underscores that they should be able to promote and model flexible working. Drawing from his flexible work experience as a secretary in the Victorian public service in 2015, he says that practicing it himself was important because he could demonstrate that it wasn’t about where you were or how many hours you spent in the office, but it’s about the work that was done.

“I could do that role from wherever I was and very much model that flexibility. We had a huge uptake in flexible work approaches in that organisation because I strongly encouraged that we put processes in place. Importantly, people could see that it was being done,” he says.

Fiona further calls for leaders’ commitment to flexible working, saying that “[they] need to role model desired behaviours because that’s how culture perpetuates. If you want a culture that values flexible working, leaders are key.”

Rethink job design 

The shift to flexible working recognised that not all jobs require face-to-face setups. Clare says that there should be more analysis on the design of jobs, thinking through how roles can be performed most effectively. 

“It’s thinking about the design of work – what a job comprises, things that can be done better on a co-location basis, and which of those things don’t [depend on] where people are or possibly don’t [need to be done] in person.”

In addition to rethinking job design, Adam says that organisations should give staff more agency that will help them produce the best outcomes. 

It’s about talking to your staff, giving [them] more agency… If you give staff more agency to shifts around what works for them and their family or their life circumstance, you get more engagement, more productivity, happier staff.”

Encourage new ways of working

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the shift to flexible working, which also debunked some concerns about people working remotely.

“We have learned that people can optimise their productivity while working from home. We’ve also recognised that we can still work together – just because you’re working from home doesn’t impede collaboration, it doesn’t impede knowledge sharing,” Fiona says.

She adds, “if we want a more diverse workforce, then flexible working is a way to improve the inclusiveness and participation of groups that were otherwise potentially left out of the workforce, particularly those with disabilities.”

Clare supports this by encouraging employers to offer new ways of working that differ from accustomed arrangements such as part-time employment. 

“I would very much encourage employers to be open to considering different ways of working rather than defaulting to a traditional model of full-time permanent employment, which is based in a workplace in designated hours.

“I’d go one step further to encourage governments to support employers doing this. Governments often encourage employers to be innovative in their business practices, but [I think] innovation in relation to employment practices would [have] real benefits from government encouraging [it] more widely,” she says.