In Australia, under ‘right to request’ legislation, employers are obliged under law to at least consider flexible work requests.

They are under no obligation to offer flexibility to meet an employee’s needs, but consider it they must.

A lot of working carers are probably unaware that they have the right to make a flexibility request and many remain wary as to the boss’s reaction if they do.

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Exercising the legal ‘right to request’ may not carry the fear of retaliation such a request does in some countries such as the US, but the perception remains that there is a stigma that comes from seeking flexibility to accommodate family/carer demands.

A survey in 2016 by CPA Australia indicated that 31.2 per cent of respondents believed that to make such a request would have a negative impact on their career prospects – from which it’s plain that fear still rules in some workplaces. Only 0.9 per cent believed such a request would have a positive effect on their chances.

But the CPA survey did hold out some hope for the multitudes trying to achieve equilibrium in the all-important balancing act between work and family life. Of survey respondents who had requested a flexibility arrangement, 74.1 per cent reported that their employer had agreed.

The survey stats are revealing: 35.9 per cent of respondents would seek a flexibility arrangement to achieve what CPA called work/life balance and 34 per cent listed childcare as the priority. That’s 79.9 per cent who would seek a reordering of priorities away from work and career as the all-pervasive dominating presence.

Childcare was the most likely cause to lead an employer to consider a flexibility arrangement: 47.8 per cent as against 30.5 per cent for the ‘work/life balance’ reasons.

The Workplace Ombudsman’s website gives two examples of eligibility for flexible work arrangements under the ‘right to request’ legislation:

  • Greg wants to start work at 10am instead of 9am so he can take his son to pre-school. He can request flexible working arrangements to help him care for his son.
  • Shirley is 60 years old and wants to finish early on Wednesday so she can volunteer at her local hospital. She can request flexible working arrangements because she is over 55 years old.

A casual worker, though, can only apply for flexibility if they’ve been working for the employer regularly for 12 months and can be expected to continue to work for them. And these days, more and more people are employed on a casual basis.    

There’s no specific reference in the legislation to the very great number of people who must juggle the care of aging and/or disabled relatives with employment requirements.

All are at the mercy of the ‘reasonable business grounds’ standard, which of course permits employers to focus on costs and productivity to find an easy out. They do at least have to respond and within 21 days of a request being made, giving their reasons for refusing or accepting. 

But the day of the blinkered, rigid boss would appear to be over. The benefits of flexibility to employees and employers have been widely demonstrated. Companies that have opted for a flexibility policy find their workers are better motivated and more energised and less prone to absenteeism. Skilled people are more likely to remain in employment where work/life balance is taken into consideration.

Employers are also finding that they can attract talented people by offering flexibility. Business Insider (www.businessinsider.com.au) summed it up: “Rigid business hours can be a barrier to entry for many people – stopping them joining the workforce, restricting the hours they can participate, and limiting extracurricular options. Parents are a classic example – many need to engage services to look after or transport their children to and from school. This can leave them worse off in two ways – monetarily and in the relationship with their kids.”

There is also another side to the flexibility picture: because of rising housing and accommodation costs, people are having to travel greater distances to and from work. At the same time, though, advances in technology have created a situation in which they don’t actually have to travel at all.    

A Melbourne ‘digital marketplace’ company called Envato has been showing the way for three years now: in 2015 it launched a program by which employees work anywhere at any time. As Business Insider puts it: “This means Australian companies can hire the best from anywhere, but it also means they can compete with foreign companies for the best Australian talent.”   

Lindsey Ruth of the staffing and recruitment agency Addeco sums up the new age: “Dead is the day that employees clock in at 9am and head out the door at 5pm. While many Australians work more than 40 hours a week, not all of those hours are spent in the office. People are working smarter, not longer, and getting more done with less.”