Workplace flexibility is a term that has been around for a while now, but most organisations are not as flexible as they can be.

Sure, if you fit neatly into a category like “working mother”, they will be politically correct and offer you flexible hours, as long as you don’t mind feeling like you are on the career track to nowhere.

Senior management in many industries still believe that people who are serious about their careers do not take up workplace flexibility options, and there is certainly anecdotal evidence of this.

The real test of any flexibility programme is not how many people take it up, but how many senior people take it up and how they are viewed as a consequence.

Let me give you an example: I have a client who has invited me to facilitate their management conference for the last couple of years. Prior to the event, I met up with each division’s senior manager to go over their contribution and discuss the event.

Last year, one of our meetings ran over time and I was advised that my final appointment for the day would have to be rescheduled as the senior manager had to leave to see his child play a sport. This comment was made without any negative tone or eye rolling. This is a workplace that truly believes in work-life balance for all. Would it be the same in your workplace or would that manager be seen as less than committed to his role?

Perhaps your organisation is making attempts to be more flexible but doesn’t really understand what flexibility means.

I met a senior manager from an accounting firm recently who proudly told me his partners had introduced a workplace flexibility scheme, which involved everyone having the Friday afternoon off. He didn’t understand why staff were not that impressed with the new policy. They had missed the point.

The other growng phenomenon is that people who are younger, childless, or both, want flexibility.

Here’s another example I use in my programmes on engaging younger generations.

The human resource manager had a visit from a young male staff member wanting to renegotiate his working hours from five days a week to four days. He put forward a well thought out case for why the job could be done in four days without affecting customers. When the HR manager asked why, he responded “so I have time for my life”.

As there was no precedent for this type of request in the company policies, the HR manager referred to the chief executive officer. The response was a definite  “no’’ and eventually, the young employee left the company, taking with him valuable skills and knowledge.

No singular solution

So why don’t more organisations do it properly? As far as I can see, it boils down to two issues: administration and fairness.

Creating a good flexibility programme will mean more administration but think of the up side. If you do it right, you should have less staff turnover, fewer performance management issues and less stressed managers.

This argument is like the disorganised person who doesn’t have time to attend a time management course. If he goes, then he would be more organised.

On the issue of fairness, a lot of people confuse “fairness” with “sameness”.

Ask yourself: “Would you buy all your children the same Christmas or birthday present?” The answer is no; you would tailor it to their needs. The same is true of workplace flexibility options. If you try to make a one-size-fits-all option, you will end up pleasing no one.

The local context

So, how do Singaporean organisations rate in terms of workplace flexibility? A report in late 2008 issued by the Manpower Ministry, which surveyed  2,940 companies employing over 840,000 workers, showed that only one in 10 employers are adopting flexible work arrangements.

On the upside, eight out of 10 employers granted more than the legal requirement of leave. Besides the legislated annual, sick and childcare leave, they also granted compassionate leave and many allowed wedding leave.

If you recognise that your organisation can be more flexible, you may start to think what you can do differently.

Here are some ideas:

* Purchasing extra leave;

* Grandparent leave;

* Compressed work week;

* Job sharing at a senior level;

* Floating cultural day;

* Birthday leave;

* Community service leave;

* Bringing pets to work;

* Aged care centre;

* Outcome-based employment contract; and

* Extra leave to compensate for business travel.

To take action, there are two aspects of workplace flexibility issues to consider.

First, closely examine your workplace flexibility policies and procedures to see if they need upgrading to include the areas mentioned above.

Second, and most importantly, do an informal survey to find out if the policies and procedures are being used in practice.

In other words, how these policies are perceived by staff at all levels, including senior management. Only when these are actually being used can you say that your organisation is really flexible.