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Many Australian financial services firms believe that the country is at the forefront of flexible working policies, thanks in part to new legislation driving changes and the nation's conviction that it promotes gender diversity and equality.

As of 1 July this year, when amendments to the Fair Work Act (2009) came into effect, employees in Australia now have more leeway to request flexible workplace arrangements.

A forum of in-house recruiters from across a broad cross-section of financial and professional service firms hosted by eFinancialCareers in Melbourne last week, believed that flexible working was more advanced in Australia - both in terms of employees demanding it, and employers embracing it - than many other parts of the world.

This appears to be supported by a recent research survey, profiled on the Harvard Business Review blog last month, which cited that in the US, 75% of working adults polled said they had "a little” flexibility at work" - a significant increase on 68% in 2012 and 64% in 2011 - yet almost half of those questioned believed that asking for flexible work options would hurt their chances of advancing in their job.

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While the enthusiastic adoption of flexible working in Australia is notable, a recent government research report indicated that men, who still dominated staff numbers in the country's financial services industry, were less likely than women to ask for it. The research revealed that 24.2% of women had requested flexibility compared to 17.3% of men. "Requests were also much less likely to be reported by those working in male-dominated industries and male-dominated jobs."

The government said, however, that its research had shown that workplace flexibility was "a key driver of employment decisions and job performance for both women and men", including young men, male managers, men approaching retirement and especially younger fathers.

"Given this, having greater access to flexible work will enable men to increase their engagement in caregiving and household work, which in turn will help to facilitate gender equality at work."

One bank recruiter said that the adoption of flexible working in her organisation had been driven by the tone at the top. Some senior management executives had moved to a flexible schedule, and this had sent a positive message throughout the organisation, and had endorsed the practice as powerful retention tool.

But many participating in the forum pointed out that there were many areas where it was harder to implement than in others, notably in front-office and client facing roles, and that it was easier to implement flexible working among existing staff than at the hiring stage.

Flexible working was often seen as a reward for existing employees who had already demonstrated their value and commitment to the organisation, whereas with new staff, they still needed to prove themselves. However, one recruited said that increasingly during interviews, candidates were making flexible working a condition of accepting the job offer.

A number of companies had been able to evaluate the productivity impact of allowing staff to work from home. A recruiter at a large global firm with offices in Australia said that research had shown that employees had fewer distractions at home, and tended worked harder.

They also said that employees were more loyal and committed if they were allowed to work flexibly, and tended to adopt a more entrepreneurial approach, seeing their fortunes and those of their employers as inextricably connected.


AUTHORAmanda Vermeulen

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