Flexibility set to be key battleground issue as employers push for office return

Experts say 2021 will be a battle for flexibility as the gap between employee and employer expectations begins to widen.

While 2020 was the year of flexible working, business leaders have their sights set on bringing employees back into the office, according to the annual Robert Walters Salary Survey.

The fresh jobs data highlights a widening void, warning that flexibility will be the key battleground issue between employers and their staff this year.

While employees have been emboldened by the flexibility gains of 2020, 60% of employers surveyed said productivity concerns are the main driver for wanting to return to traditional ways of working.

It’s bad news for the 85% of professionals surveyed who indicated that they want their current flexible working arrangements to continue – including 43% who want to continue working remotely full-time.

Robert Walters ANZ Managing Director, James Nicholson, said the conflicting expectations means Australia is “entering the perfect storm”.

“2021 is going to see a resetting of the employment landscape. How this re-balancing of the working environment and bridging of the expectation gap is managed now, has the potential to dictate the future of the workplace for decades to come,” he said.

“2020 saw the way we live and work experience more disruption than at any other point in living memory.

“However, the steady economic recovery Australia has begun to experience, means the outlook for the Australian job market in 2021 is more positive than expected, albeit not without its challenges.”

How HR leaders handle the conversations around flexibility is going to prove challenging throughout this year.

Productivity gains will have to be weighed against the risk of top talent leaving to find flexibility elsewhere.

The survey also found that when it comes to job satisfaction, renumeration has dropped significantly in the list of priorities for employees.

Workplace culture is now the number one driver, followed by job security and workplace flexibility.

Speaking to the AFR, Nicholson said he isn’t convinced that the pandemic level of flexibility would remain once COVID-19 is behind us.

“A large proportion of the working population now say they love flexibility, they love working from home. Is there any difference in that from a child saying ‘I love sugar, I want to eat more sugar’? he said.

“They’re not going to get the best results just because they want it or it’s more convenient.”

However, if employers are too quick to enforce a total return to the workplaces, they could face legal issues.

Kyle Scott, director of the Australian Business Lawyers & Advisors, said he expects challenges around COVID-19-related issues to be an emerging litigation area this year.

Some Modern Awards give employees the right to request flexible working arrangements based on their circumstances.

Now thanks to 2020, workers may have a stronger case to argue their work can be done from home with the same level of productivity.

“I’m sure there’ll be a few legal issues popping up around how hybrid or remote working works in practice,” Scott told HRD. “I think that’ll be an emerging field in 2021.”

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