Returning to work after a period of parental leave is a key crunch point in a worker’s career.

Handled well, this transition can be a smooth and positive experience for employees and their employers, with win-win outcomes for them both.

Handled poorly, it can be frustrating and inefficient (at best) or disastrous (at worst).

Many employees with parental and carer responsibilities now have a legal right to request flexible work. Increasingly, men and women returning from parental leave are requesting flexible work arrangements. And we are seeing employers agree to these requests in larger numbers than ever before.

Most businesses now accept that promoting diversity and flexibility can, in theory, lead to better business outcomes; but are these flexible work arrangements actually working in practice?

Are employers getting the most out of their flexible workers? And are workers happy with their flexible work arrangements? And what impact is this having on their careers?

In our experience, the reality of flexible work is often far less satisfying and effective than employees and employers hope for. In some cases, flexible work just doesn’t work.

Too often, we see employees request flexibility and employers agree to it - but nobody happy about how it actually works in practice.

Managers express frustration at how flexible workers impact on their work load and their ability to meet business and team needs. Employees report feeling like ‘second class’ workers and say that their career opportunities and quality of work decline after they start working flexibly.

A recent survey of Victorian women lawyers revealed that, of those who had made requests for flexible work, 95% had their requests approved in full or part1. But, of the 95% of women who were granted flexible work arrangements:

  • 25% said that the arrangement had a negative effect on their chances of promotion and career opportunities; and
  • 18% said that the quality of work they were given declined, once they started working flexibly.2

This experience is not unique to the legal profession. In our dealings with clients, we see employers and employees facing the same difficulties and frustrations across all industries.

Recent research conducted by Deloitte Australia, in partnership with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission3, suggests that offering flexibility/diversity alone is not enough. To get the best business outcomes, employers also need to focus on ‘inclusion’ - that is, taking steps to ensure that employees feel that they are treated fairly and with respect and are valued in the workplace.

But how do you build an inclusive workplace? And how can you manage your employees’ transitions back to work, and into flexible work, effectively? How can you optimise the flexible work experience and make it rewarding and sustainable for your business and your employees?

Lisa Lurie