The Future of Flexible Working in Aotearoa New Zealand

Flexible working comes in many shapes and sizes —in fact, working flexibly takes place in as many ways as there are different definitions for the term.

Covid-19 forced businesses to react and adapt to alternative ways of working at scale and pace. It has provided a brief window of opportunity to rethink how we might harness the benefits of flexible working in a new post-pandemic world.

As we look to the future and how we might reimagine the ways in which we work, it’s more important than ever to get clarity on what flexible working means for organisations and society more broadly. We wanted to better understand how the pandemic response had reshaped Leader’s thinking on the future of flexible working, both within their organisations and for Aotearoa New Zealand.

At our recent Diversity and Inclusion Meet-Up on the Future of Flexible Working, we heard from Anya Satyanand(CEO, Leadership NZ), Lisa Thompson(General Manager of Customers, NZTE), Jayde Hill(People and Culture Business Partner of Publicis Groupe), Charlotte Lockhart(CEO, 4 Day Week)and Kiri Hannifin (General Manager of Corporate Affairs, Quality, Safety and Sustainability at Countdown Supermarkets), about the realities of flexible work in their organisations: what works well, what’s challenging and how we might use flexible working to promote a more inclusive, equitable working world.

“I have this real sense that the world right now requires two sets of capabilities from leadership for imagining and building a new world. We need to be a hospice to a world that is dying, and we need to be midwives to the world that is emerging. Within that we need to take care of the humanity of both of those processes.” -Anya Satyanand.

The insights were as complex as they were diverse, below are some of the key ideas shared by our panellists:

The opportunity is to keep asking

Breaking the mould “doesn’t come about easily—we have to fight for it,” says Lisa Thompson, who shared how she has advocated for flexible working throughout her career: from having a company-agreed nanny that allowed her to travel with her two young children and continue breastfeeding, to promoting better conditions for remote working so that others may also benefit.

The action of asking —and doing so persistently —is a key element she shared in unlocking flexibility in the workplace. You might not get an immediate ‘yes,’ and the end result might not be the first solution, but what’s important is to outline what is good for you as an individual and present it as a possible solution. For leaders, the opportunity is to find ways to say yes.

“The opportunity for you is to keep asking –what do you want? What’s going to be good for you? The opportunity for us as leaders is to find a way to say yes.”–Lisa Thompson.

Different people, different perspectives

When it comes to the mechanics of flexible working, it can be hard to imagine just what that looks like for diverse teams. We heard from panellist Jayde Hill on how an agreed behaviour-based approach based on principles of trust, rather than policies, has been successful in developing a productive model of flexible working for their global business.

As an organisation, they agreed to focus on removing bias and respond to the fact that not everyone perceives flexible working in the same way —let alone wants to work in the same way. Jayde further explained that at Publicis Group “we recognise that everyone is different, and what flexibility looks like to me is different than what flexibility looks like to you”. It highlights the importance of ensuring diverse perspectives are heard in places of decision making.

The place of privilege

It’s important to remember that when we talk about flexible working as we commonly know it —whether this is related to the location of work, or hours of work outside of the traditional 9-5 —it only applies to a privileged portion of the working population in Aotearoa. Many employees working in frontline positions, particularly shift-structured roles, don’t have the same access to flexible working arrangements as office-based roles.

The challenge is to rethink how we might reshape traditional structures of employment as a society, and more importantly, how we can advocate for more equitable and sustainable ways of working, in a rapidly changing and tech enabled world.

Charlotte Lockhart reflected on what we need to consider when thinking about how working flexibly works with our lives. “We don’t work a 40 hour week now. We might go to work for 40 hours, but you’re still checking your cellphones. Your work is still disrupting your life. We don’t switch off which is not healthy for us and not healthy for our society.”

Moreover, it’s important for those in the positions of privilege and power to hold space for others down the line of employment to reap similar benefits. We also need to understand how business and employment can set the tone for someone’s life: “What we need to remember as leaders, is that we’re borrowing people from their lives.” –Charlotte Lockhart