The reason we need flexibility for equality comes down to leadership

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How many times have you joined a gym, subscribed to a publication, music streaming service or an app with full intention of cancelling after that wonderful free trial period, and then a year later found yourself seeing the money leave your account month after month and telling yourself you  really need to cancel, but somehow you never do? 

It is embarrassing; it was a regular cause of self-condemnation on my part and I just could not figure out why I am being such a victim to inertia– until I became a bit of a behavioural science nut. 

This phenomenon is now well researched, and been labelled as “status quo bias” by William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser (1988).  It is one of the myriads of heuristics, which drive our unconscious mental processes – which by the way most are.  What ends up as a result is the fact that we all tend to continue to behave in the ways we always have, even if it is not in our best interest.  Case and point, the amount of money we have all wasted on subscriptions we did not need, and gym sessions we never go to. 

The solutions against such heuristics are what Thaler and Sunstein call “nudges” – external interventions to nudge people to change their behaviour in the right direction.  Through theirs, and many other pieces of research in behavioural economics and psychology, we have learned that through education, sharing the business case and the data, and making sure people are aware of an issue and what to do about it, very, very little changes. Just look at how long it took for rates of smoking, even though we have known about its dangers for decades to really change.

So, when we think about changing the landscape of work, and solving for flexibility “status quo bias” is very important to keep in mind.  No matter how we view the uptake of flexible work in many people’s best interest, they will not change their current patterns without a ‘nudge’ or another intervention.  Those that do a lot of the time are forced to by personal circumstances, even though there is a massive body of evidence to say flex is good for 'everyone in business' are slow to genuinely implement it. Managers are too fearful to openly encourage it, and even those that could use it with hesitation.

This is why the work of WGEA is so good – a countrywide initiative making Australia look at itself and what it is striving for with regards to workplace equality.  The reporting process in itself is a bit of a nudge if nothing else, to self-examine and understand if we are doing the right thing by our people.  It would be like if had a monthly process where we were meant to stop and sit down and look at each one of our automatic deductions on our credit card – I am sure a lot less unnecessary charges would continue. 

Of course, when in 2017 WGEA changed their reporting requirements for the Employer of Choice (EOC) citation and included a clause that states '....organisations have to show that they hold managers accountable for implementing flexible work', we got excited. 

Specifically, the application for the Employer of Choice Citation holds a question: 

2.   All managers must entrench flexible working for their employees. Please confirm this occurs:
☐ Yes, all managers are required to entrench flexible working for their employees

2.1 Please provide details on how this occurs:

Those who want to be leaders need to have systems and processes in place to ensure that every manager has to have the conversation and is entrenching flexible working.  And whether it is an outside body incentivising organisations, or even better, organisations doing this of their own motivation internally, it is great that there is a push to help people along in changing and stepping outside of their status quo. 

There is only one caveat to my excitement – I genuinely hope by saying 'an organisation has ensured that  “managers are entrenching” flexibility' equates to a business doing more than just instructing managers to have a conversation, or launched a policy that says they should.  Because that, as we have seen above, won't achieve much.

There are a number of ways to make managers accountable for entrenching flexible work, and the obvious one is setting measurable targets and KPIs that can be tracked.

A way that we at Juggle like to work with our clients is by building the system first.  We believe you need to start with a little compassion.  Changing the way you work and have worked sometimes for decades, is hard.  Knowing how to manage that loss aversion that we naturally experience when we perceive we will “lose control” is tough – managers who have always seen people in the office and in that way felt that they knew they were working, all of a sudden are asked to just let people shift their hours and location of work.  And that is going to feel very threatening to managers, with the potential to cause resistance or even worse causing them to simply ignore the initiatives.

That is why at Juggle Strategies we recommend providing training and a system of support which allows managers to feel more in control of the situation, establishing ways to know that things are on the right track and getting done – even if they can not always watch it happen. 

Then, once they feel they have the skills, goals can be set to work towards and they all share with their peers. Finally you have a way to make sure you measure the progress. This way, the initiative is not just about education or telling the story, but you have an authentic and real way to measure its impact, and ensure that the lived experience truly is what you are driving towards.

Designing a set of “nudges” is also highly recommended to sustain the journey in flexibility in your organisation. Those can be varied and depend on the culture, but can look like competitions, creating a default on roles to all be flex from they day they are advertised (much like the all roles flex initiatives we see), calendar interventions, recognition schemes, etc. 

In the end, we really encourage you to think past a policy, communication plans, promotion, and even storytelling (even though this last one is quite critical) and truly think through implementation and nudges and interventions you can undertake to truly solve for flexibility, and with it drive towards equality.

As for your WGEA reporting, it is around the corner again, as we edge closer to the deadline of 31 May. Even though reporting is generally not a fun process, instead of trying to tick off as many boxes as possible, take a moment to stop and reflect. Have a genuine, authentic look at what has changed since last year.  Not what policies or comms plans you have launched, but how the lived, everyday experience of all your staff has changed - and if it hasn’t, think about where you can focus on to start the shift.

If you are in need of some inspiration, give me a ring or contact me directly at maja.paleka@jugglestrategies.com.au and let’s have a real or virtual coffee  - we are always happy to share our experience, thoughts and ideas. 

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