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Two-thirds of workers would quit if offered a job with more flexibility

Around two-thirds of workers would consider leaving their current job if offered a comparable one with greater flexibility, a new survey has found.

The study, undertaken by recruitment firm OCG and diversity consultancy Divertas, surveyed 1,300 New Zealand workers across 20 industry sectors on changes to the flexibility provisions in employment law introduced last year. The Employment Relations Act amendment gave workers the legal right to ask for flexibility in work practices, but there is low awareness of the change among employers.

Divertas chief executive Carol Brown said a perception persists that managers can use their discretion when it comes to flexible work, ring-fencing jobs and people they want to offer those arrangements to even though the law changes mean there have to be solid grounds for refusal.

The survey found only 28 percent of respondents had formal flexible working arrangements and more than half weren’t aware of their rights. A further 28 percent who currently don’t have flexible work, plan to apply for it within the next year.

Women remain the predominant users, mainly so they could care for family members. The survey found workers of both genders aged in the 31- to 45-year age group were by far the largest users of flexible work, which Brown said is an issue for companies as this includes the middle management group who will eventually become leaders in the organisation.

When asked about the key benefits to them, most respondents cited work-life balance and improved physical and mental well-being. Gen X respondents were more focused on caring responsibilities while Millennials wanted to be able to pursue personal interests.

The main barrier stopping workers asking for flexible work, particularly Millennials, is fear of negative career consequences. They’re concerned it will be career limiting due to a widespread culture of 'presenteeism' – needing be seen at work rather than being judged on output. They’re also worried about excessive workload if reducing their hours.

“Most managers are not equipped to have the conversation or manage on outputs, they just see it as more hassle,” said Brown.

The two leading sectors for flexible work were financial services, mainly led by the banks, and government. Both sectors are also those with the highest number of female employees. The outlier was the IT sector, which despite being 80 percent male dominated, appears to be leading the way regarding flexible work.

Silicon Valley-based talent expert and futurist Kevin Wheeler said there is a global trend towards workforce deregulation and flexibility, with workers wanting more choice over when and where they work. They’re not necessarily looking to work fewer hours because they want to maintain income.

He said the IT sector had pioneered a new way of working that doesn’t require standard hours in the office, starting with stay-at-home Fridays that have morphed into ‘don’t come into the office unless you need to’.  New technology apps allow colleagues to communicate in this virtual world when they need to, he said.  

“Older, more established companies are still mostly resistant to making this move compared to start-ups and older workers are more resistant,” Wheeler said.

As companies downsize office space, the trend is for public co-working spaces where employees can hire an office, or even a table or sofa for meetings rather than going into work, he said. These co-working spaces, which he said around a third of US companies now use, are typically situated in neighbourhoods so people don’t have to travel far.

Another big trend in the US with technology advances and the rise of the collaborative networked economy, was the growth of freelance employees, who may work for several organisations at once. Wheeler expects those arrangements will account for about half the US workforce within the next decade from the quarter it makes up currently.

“This new world is about being innovative, creative and thinking outside the box, it’s not about working your way up the hierarchy and doing what you’re told,” Wheeler said.

Brown said local trends such as the growing ethnic diversity, ageing workforce, increasing talent shortages, and rise in the level of female participation in the workforce, mean Kiwi companies will need to revise the way they currently think about flexible work and how they manage their workforce.

“One size, does not fit all,” she said.