June 2016

The rise of flexible work in the resources industry

  • By Tara Diamond, Executive Director – Industry Services, Australian Mines and Metals Association

How properly implemented flexible work arrangements can offer many benefits to both employers and employees

At many resource industry corporate offices and project sites across Australia, recruitment and human resources practices have been overhauled in a concerted effort to attract and retain greater numbers of women. Today, leaders largely see having a diversity and inclusion strategy as imperative to increasing female participation.

The Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) is assisting employers in this push through its national gender diversity initiative, the Australian Women in Resources Alliance (AWRA). AWRA wants to see women’s participation in the industry much higher than the current 15 per cent of the national workforce.

AWRA facilitates programs and provides support and guidance materials that help employers to build their organisation’s capability to attract, retain and develop female talent, become an employer of choice for women and benefit from the skills and talent mix of a gender-diverse workforce.

Although it will be some years before raw workforce data will truly reflect these efforts, it is impressive to see the changes that Australian resource organisations have made to their internal policies and procedures as well as the way that they market career opportunities to women.

One area that has remained a challenge for many employers in the resource industry has been in putting flexible work practices in place at their operations. This is something that AWRA hopes to address with its new Guide to Flexible Work.

The concept of flexible work has gained greater attention in recent years, and we are having more conversations with resource leaders and human resources specialists about how different arrangements could be implemented in their workplaces.

The Guide to Flexible Work is designed to provide resources, related construction and allied services sector organisations with a comprehensive knowledge baseon workplace flexibility that can be considered for their unique work environment.

What is flexible work?

Flexible work involves an agreement on where, when and for how long work is performed. Flexible work can typically be categorised into formal and informal arrangements, with the formal being within the parameters of a contract of employment or other type of workplace agreement. The latter is adopted on a short- or long-term basis, depending on the needs of the employee and employer.

According to the results of the Fair Work Commission’s Australian Workplace Relations Study released in 2015, out of the 7800 employees who made a request for flexible working arrangements, 62 per cent did so verbally. This indicates that the majority of employees who wish to work on a flexible basis prefer to have informal agreements with their employer.

Employers and employees should be aware, however, that it is a legislative requirement to properly consider requests for flexibility. Most notably, the Fair Work Act 2009 provides employees with children under school age and/or dependants under the age of 18 with a disability the right to request a flexible work arrangement (see break-out box).

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Best practice employers have processes in place that ensure their flexible work options meet all legislative requirements, are non-discriminatory and address the objectives and requirements of both the business and its employees.

Benefits and challenges of workplace flexibility

Flexible work arrangements can offer employees the ability to balance their work-life goals, while also providing employers with greater flexibility to meet changing operational needs.

The Randstad World of Work Report 2013/14 demonstrates how the benefits of flexible work flows both ways. Most employees surveyed said that their ideal working arrangement would involve 70 per cent office-based work and 30 per cent remote-based work, while 41 per cent of employers believe that workplace flexibility boosts employee engagement and satisfaction.

Research into what prevents Australian businesses from implementing flexible work indicates two primary reasons: a lack of trust or know-how on flexible work and concerns over the impact that flexible work arrangements may have on organisational performance.

Some resource industry organisations can find implementing flexible work arrangements initially challenging, with operational and safety requirements limiting the number of viable options. Employment often requires travel to remote locations where projects operate on a 24-hour basis with strict health and safety rules impacting employee movements.

While each workplace is unique and needs to be assessed on its individual needs, how well an employer is able to leverage flexible work options to their advantage often comes down to culture, leadership and ‘thinking outside the box’.

We also have to recognise how resource operations and the broad range of working options within it are evolving with new technical advances. For instance, the onset of new technology innovations is seeing a greater demand for skills at remote operating centres located in a company’s corporate headquarters and other metropolitan locations.

Of course, this isn’t to say that flexible working arrangements are unachievable in remote or other, ‘fly-in, fly-out’, locations.

AWRA’s Guide to Flexible Work outlines 13 work options ranging from more traditional arrangements, such as part-time and casual employment, to more modern arrangements, such as job sharing, a results-only work environment, teleworking, compressed working hours and expanded leave.

As one example, job sharing is an arrangement that can be practically applied at both corporate and onsite locations. This arrangement involves two or more employees sharing the duties of one role and can be a great option if the employees have slightly different skillsets as they both bring unique strengths to the role. Employees may work alternate days or weeks, depending on what suits them and their employer.

This arrangement can deliver numerous benefits for the organisation, including maintaining continuity of work through the equivalent of full-time hours, the collaboration of ‘two brains’ for better performance, sharing of peak workloads and the ability to attract skilled and experienced employees who cannot commit to a full-time role.

For the employees, this arrangement provides the opportunity to keep working within their chosen career and further build skills in teamwork, negotiation, time management and work planning. They are also able to continue building their professional networks while meeting their personal obligations.

Flexible work arrangements shouldn’t be limited to non-management roles either, with Rio Tinto employing two women to share the role of general manager, business improvement in its iron ore division.

Rio Tinto has a flexible work arrangements policy that mandates that all employees have the right to request flexible working arrangements and that all requests must be given due consideration on a case-by-case basis. Importantly, the company has a gender-neutral approach to this policy, encouraging both female and male employees to make use of available arrangements.

Promoting flexible work options to women and men across all levels and occupations helps to build a culture whereby these roles are seen as equal to traditional ‘9 to 5’ roles in terms of contributing to organisational performance.

And while flexible work undoubtedly opens the door for more women to continue developing their careers, it is critical that it is not seen as something that only women take on to manage work and caring responsibilities, and that women are remunerated equal to men undertaking the same roles and responsibilities.

How to make flexibility work

It goes without saying that not all flexible work arrangements will be suitable for every workplace or employee. Each must be assessed against the organisation’s needs and ability to accommodate such arrangements, with any necessary changes to policies and procedures made well before a flexible work arrangement commences.

One of the key questions for employers to ask before embarking on flexible work is if they are doing it for the right reasons. The right flexible work arrangement will always benefit both employer and employee.

Along with ensuring that all policies and guidelines are consistent with relevant legislative obligations, leaders should be trained in managing different work arrangements and employees should be educated on the benefits of flexibility to foster a culture of acceptance in the workplace.

AWRA’s guide also includes tips to ensure that flexible work arrangements run smoothly, such as clearly communicating employees’ start/finish times or days off to all relevant staff, sharing calendars and ensuring that all team members can attend important meetings, whether in person or remotely via technology.

With gender equality now a priority for the resource industry, we hope to see more employers incorporating flexible work as a key strategy to increase their workforce diversity.  

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Connect with other minerals industry professionals via AusIMM’s LinkedIn group and AusIMM’s Women in Mining Network LinkedIn group 

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