What does it mean to have a ‘flexible’ working environment? According to responses to this year’s Employee Benefits Trends Study (EBTS), produced by MetLife Australia, it depends if you’re asking an employer or employee.

The 2020 EBTS, which surveyed more than 300 employers and 1,000 employees, found a disconnect when it comes to flexible working arrangements. According to Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman, examples of flexible arrangements include changes to work hours (starting and finishing times), work patterns (split shifts or job sharing) or work locations (including working from home).

Both employers and employees agree having flexible working arrangements is vital. Indeed, employees nominate flexible work arrangements as the top 'must-have' employee benefit. More than seven in 10 (72 per cent) of employers say they already provide flexible working arrangements as an employee benefit.

The disconnect comes when employees are asked about the availability of flexible arrangements in their workplace. Only about half (53 per cent) believe such opportunities are currently available to them. More broadly, four in 10 employees also don’t feel their employer offers benefits or programs that help or support their wellbeing during this time.

And despite employers saying they offer flexible working arrangements to help the mental health of their staff, employees report an increase in their stress levels. Almost 80 per cent say they feel stressed, with half saying they are more stressed now than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Employers are certainly aware of the need to provide employee flexibility. When asked to assess the factors that are important in attracting and retaining talent, employers say:

  • providing employees with the ability to customise benefits to meet their needs (74 per cent);
  • providing the ability to shift workdays as necessary (77 per cent);
  • providing the ability to work from remote locations (79 per cent).

It seems COVID-19 has forced employers to make uncomfortable workplace decisions. More than three in five (62 per cent) of employers, for instance, claim their organisation is challenged by the increased demand for work-life flexibility (up from 48 per cent in last year's EBTS).

Undoubtedly, the events of 2020 have shaken things up in Australian workplaces. While some businesses have struggled to survive, many employers have had to deal with employees forced to work from home. They have also needed to cope with a rapid change in employees’ expectations for more flexible work arrangements.

Does working remotely equal 'flexibility'?

The need for more employees to work from home due to the pandemic has presented a challenge for all workplaces. It’s been particularly difficult for employees to find balance in their lives while working remotely.

Before the pandemic, close to 70 per cent of Australians either didn't work from home or did so less than one day per week. The EBTS found 48 per cent of employees now expect to spend more time working from home. More than half (56 per cent), however, say working from home would make it difficult for them to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

MetLife Australia’s Head of People and Culture, Allyson Carlile, says that while remote working has long been a hallmark of flexible working, ‘remote’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘flexible’.

“Employees may consider remote work as standard in today’s workplace, not an additional benefit,” says Carlile. “Many are instead now looking to their employers to support them with a new blended way of working, but the research highlighted many organisations (62 per cent) are struggling with the challenge of increased demand for work-life flexibility. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to flexibility and that can create complexity for some organisations.

“Although working from home may alleviate certain stresses, employers need to empower their employees with more flexible work hours, so they have the time they need to take care of themselves and their loved ones.”

The EBTS offers further clues for employers looking to bring their employees back to their regular workplaces as pandemic restrictions ease. The survey found ‘flexibility of working hours’ (37 per cent) and ‘flexibility of working location’ (30 per cent) were significant factors for returning staff, only behind the need for adequate hygiene policies, availability of personal protective equipment and having clear rules about social distancing.

As staff continue to return to their physical workplaces, it's clear employers need to offer employees customised options and empower them to make decisions about their working environment. These options need to be supported by clear communication and rules. This may be a big culture shift for many employers, but taking a more flexible approach will result in more loyal, engaged and productive employees.

For more information: Download the MetLife Australia 2020 Employee Benefits Trends Study