On International Women’s Day, as we reflect on the progress made to date (and the distance still to go) on achieving gender equality, I’d like to focus on a topic that I see as a major barrier to getting there - the lack of flexibility in many workplaces.
Diversity and inclusion are not a ‘nice to have’ from my perspective. While I fundamentally believe that levelling the playing field and ensuring equal opportunities for all is important, I am also totally convinced that greater diversity and inclusion leads to higher productivity, staff engagement and ultimately profitability.
When we think about flexible work, often we think of a woman who is balancing parenting responsibilities with her paid work. This societal norm remains intact and is a serious barrier to gender equality in the workforce. Fundamentally, our corporate system in Australia and New Zealand was built at a time when there was a clear primary breadwinner and primary carer in families – where it was possible for one person to dedicate 24/7 to the job – regardless of what is going on outside work.
To attract and retain the modern workforce a culture of flexibility and work-life balance is critical. PwC’s Winning the fight for female talent research reveals that men and women in Austrailia and across the globe identify it as one of their top three most attractive employer traits.
Huge advances in technology have also meant that the ability for people to work anywhere anytime to get the job done has enabled us to seriously challenge how and where we work.
In response to this, PwC Australia decided to roll out a firm-wide ‘all-roles flex’ policy about 18 months ago. You might ask, why all roles flex? The answer is, because true change will only be achieved when flexibility is not just seen as a “women’s’ issue,” but a broader issue to do with workplace culture and something that supports the broader fabric of our society - something that affects everyone.
The starting assumption shouldn’t be that only women need flexible working conditions in order to care for children. Men and non-parents should feel equally entitled to have that conversation in order to achieve the work-life balance they need.
Our own research has clearly shown that work/life balance and flexibility are key priorities for men and non-parents. But 49% of men and women believe taking advantage of work-life balance and flexibility programmes has negative career consequences at their workplace. Flexibility can and should play a role in the conversation every manager has with every employee. And by flexibility I don’t just mean “part-time work” – it can mean many things, including remote working, working outside standard hours, and a variety of other arrangements.
Once you achieve a culture where everyone feels empowered to ask for the flexibility they need, you remove the stigma from working mums as the only ones who need special consideration. And as more people adopt flexible work, the emphasis shifts to the quality of someone’s work and what they are delivering, rather than hours at the desk. This is good not just for gender diversity, but for the health and wellbeing of all employees.
So the case for an all-roles-flex policy is clear. But - crucially - announcing the policy is just the beginning. To truly hard-wire flexibility into an organisation takes a huge change in culture. I’d be lying if I said it was easy at PwC Australia, and the truth is, it is an ongoing process.
At PwC, that means partners and directors must be seen to work flexibly themselves, and actively ask their team members how flexibility could work for them. It means more fathers taking parental leave, and taking on school pick-up duty. It means not scheduling meetings for 6pm that can easily be held during normal work hours. It means trusting your team to get the job done, in the way that works best for them.
In my own role, I maintain some modest flexibility. For example - my line in the sand is drawn at weekend work and travel. With the exception of a very few special circumstances, I have successfully made it a rule that I have no late appointments on Friday afternoons, and I don’t travel on the weekend, as this is my family time.
I realise this is by no means a revolutionary example, but I suspect that these arrangements aren't the norm for many CEOs. The bottom line is - if I can find some room for flexibility, I don’t see why this isn’t possible for every other role within the firm.
Many leaders say they understand the importance of flexible work, but that their business is client focused and as such, it wouldn’t work. I don’t know too many businesses that aren’t client focused – I can guarantee you that PwC is.
But 18 months in, the sky hasn’t fallen. Our teams are as productive as ever, and our clients remain at the centre of everything we do. We’ve also made a lot of changes to technology over the last 24 months which have enabled more flexibility, and have made remote working a more seamless process.
Feedback from staff has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive of the changes we have made. And given the future of work, I feel like we are ahead of the game. Millennials frequently list work-life balance as one of their top priorities in an employer. In an increasingly competitive market for talent, employers ignore this at their peril.