We appear to be increasingly spoilt for choice when it comes to flexible work options on offer.
Nine-day fortnights, part-time work, fly-in fly-out rosters and WFH regimes sit alongside mounting calls for the introduction of the six-hour work day and the four-day working week.
There is only one problem – though well-intentioned, current flexible work arrangements go nowhere near far enough to help us navigate the peaks and troughs of responsibilities that fall outside work.
Pressing work responsibilities often peak at the same time as we have to be more present in our non-working lives.
In our 30s, 40s and even 50s, most of us experience a form of mid-life madness when the heavy demands of work converge with our equally heavy non-work commitments.
Many mid-lifers try to balance full-time work with having children or caring for elderly parents – or sometimes both. Some even take on a second job to make ends meet.
Add to that volunteer work in the community or engagement with sporting clubs and busy won’t go anywhere near describing the day-to-day reality that many experience.
As a case in point, consider the plight of many working parents. With pressure on parents to take on full-time jobs to bolster their financial security, we inadvertently set them up for failure. We demand the impossible that they are dedicated to work as well as perfect parents.
The peak of our responsibilities appears to come together in mid-life – a stage of life synonymous with burnout.
Then we hit our senior years and retire because that is what others expect us to do. If we have children, they leave home and all of sudden we have a lot of time on our hands.
Having time on one’s hand was not necessarily a bad thing when a typical retirement lasted just 10 years. But with life expectancies increasing, a 20 or even 30-year retirement with too much time to fill might be less appealing.
It gives rise to the need for all of us to be better utilised in the workforce when we have time available, and less called upon when we are time poor.
It is the reason why our current flexible work arrangements need a makeover, overhaul or rebuild to incorporate what being flexible can and should really mean.
If we really want to better manage all of our commitments, we need a model of workplace flexibility that responds to the ups and downs of our responsibilities as we move through life, or “workload scaling”.
As the name suggests, this futuristic form of flexibility allows us to scale our workload based on responsibilities outside the workplace at different stages of our lives.
Using this logic, an employee regularly sits down with their employer to negotiate an appropriate full or fractional workload for a fixed period of time – say the next two to three years.
Imagine going into the workforce in your early 20s – you are career driven, keen to put in the hours and have the time to do so and therefore you negotiate a 120 per cent workload.
Two years down the track, you are keen to undertake some further study so negotiate your workload down to 80 per cent for a better balance with study and life.
You complete your qualification a few years later and move back to 120 per cent.
Not long after, though, you settle down and have a family. You and your partner wish to work and share the responsibility for raising the children so you both approach your employers and arrange a 70 per cent workload each. No one’s career is put on hold.
Over the next 30 years you review your workload every couple of years and negotiate changes to your load based on life’s circumstances.
In your 60s you work a 75 per cent load but as you near your 70s you drop back to 50 per cent. When you turn 75 you decide to drop to 25 per cent.
Workload scaling is focused on optimising an individual’s health and wellbeing and reducing the risk of burnout.
This form of flexibility responds to the fact that when we are overstretched we are unlikely to perform at our best. It assumes by effectively adjusting workloads based on non-work responsibilities across our lifetime that we are likely to see enhanced workplace productivity.
Workload scaling is not about doing less work across a lifetime. It is about doing roughly the same amount of work spread across a longer working life – and that includes the so-called retirement years.
No doubt there will be many challenges with introducing this type of flexible work arrangement though the prize of a successful implementation will be the many advantages that will spring from this new form of workplace flexibility.
As we reconsider what flexible work might look like in the future, it will be worth keeping in mind that all options should be about getting the very best work out of each and every employee – which is impossible if a person finds themselves overstretched.