Most not-for-profit HR Managers know the importance of striving to achieve best practice when it comes to workplace flexibility. Budgetary uncertainties and constraints, and the desire to maximise the resources available for service delivery, make it hard for not-for-profits to offer large remuneration packages. Flexibility provides an alternative incentive that not-for-profits can use to attract top talent.

When done well, workplace flexibility has the potential to offer significant benefits for workers and employers alike. It enables employees to more effectively balance work with other facets of their lives, and increases employee wellbeing and levels of engagement, job satisfaction and productivity. Well designed and implemented workplace flexibility also encourages women to return to work after parental leave and better facilitates transition to retirement and effective succession planning with older workers. The upshot of all of this for employers is the ability to attract and retain a talented, diverse and productive workforce with a high degree of employer loyalty.

In some circumstances, there may also be legal imperatives that require not-for-profits to consider and respond appropriately to employee requests for flexibility. The National Employment Standards contained in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (Act) include a ‘right to request’ flexible work arrangements for particular categories of employees, including some parents and carers, employees with disabilities, victims of family violence and employees over 55 years of age. If an employee who has this right requests flexibility in compliance with the procedural requirements of the Act, their employer must provide a written response to the request within 21 days. A request may only be refused on reasonable business grounds and written reasons for refusing any request must be provided. The enforcement regime that applies to this ‘right’ is limited. However, there is some sting in the tail of these provisions. Employers who fail to comply with one of the procedural requirements of the Act are liable for civil penalties. In addition, refusing an employee’s request for flexibility can lead to an adverse action or discrimination complaint.

Complex questions can arise for organisations that have agreed to flexible working arrangements with their employees. How will junior or underperforming employees who are working flexibly be supervised? Can managers supervise their staff effectively if working remotely, part-time or during non-standard hours? How will the organisation ensure fairness for all employees if it is unable to accommodate all employees’ requests for flexibility or if some employees’ flexible work arrangements negatively affect their colleagues? How can the quality of service delivery be maintained if some employees are unavailable during core business hours? How should the contributions and performance of employees working flexibly be measured? Do changes need to be made to how work is allocated and performed and how key information is communicated?

Other organisational and strategic issues arise for HR managers seeking to develop a workplace culture and systems that promote workable flexibility. How can managers be encouraged to promote flexibility and guided to manage flexible work arrangements effectively? What workforce planning and design options are available to assist not-for-profits to get the most from workplace flexibility? How can technology be used to facilitate flexible work? Are there any current industrial impediments to flexibility that could be addressed via enterprise bargaining?

We had the opportunity to discuss these questions with some of our not-for-profit (NFP) clients at our recent NFP HR Managers Forum. We drew on some of our own experiences, which led us to implement initiatives that won us a thought leadership award in the legal industry (Australasian Legal Practice Management Award). We have learnt that the ways in which organisations can support and get the best from flexible work arrangements involve looking at the way work is done at every level. The insightful comments from our clients confirmed that this issue is a priority for the sector and that many organisations also feel they have some way to go to reflect best practice in this space.

There are no easy answers to the above questions. What we do know is that it is critically important to undertake adequate planning when agreeing to flexible work arrangements, to clearly communicate expectations around flexible work and to provide managers with the guidance they need to be able to implement effective flexible work arrangements and role-model productive flexible work.