Flexible work at UNSW: Now and the future

15 Jun 2020
International Flexible Working Day was celebrated on Wednesday 10 June

Q&A with Patrick Armstrong, UNSW’s Diversity Champion for Flexible Work and Leave Options

International Flexible Working Day was celebrated on Wednesday 10 June. The day is an opportunity to showcase the benefits of flexible work for both individuals and organisations, and its message is more pertinent than ever before.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unimaginable impact on our society, economy, work and family lives, not to mention the tragic loss of life. As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, it’s a time to reflect on what we have learned from this global crisis and how we have adapted to a new ‘normal’. One key change is in the workplace, specifically the rapid move to flexible working, and working from home.

We spoke with Patrick Armstrong, our Diversity Champion for Flexible Work and Leave Options and a sessional academic in the UNSW Business School, about the future of flex.

Firstly, how have you been keeping during this period of disruption?

Like everyone, I spent the first weeks of lockdown juggling multiple commitments like work and family while experiencing the enormous uncertainty in the world around us. It has undoubtedly been a very difficult time.

But I now feel very settled into our new routines of remote working and teaching, with a slower pace of life – without the usual family drop-offs and pick-ups. I’ve come to enjoy it in many ways, particularly having more family time, but I do miss the social interaction of being on campus.

The overall feelings I’ve had are of gratitude: for my family, our health and continued employment. I know many others who have been far more impacted by this pandemic and my thoughts are with them.

How do you think the COVID-19 crisis has changed the workforce?

What this pandemic has shown us is that many workplaces that may have been resistant in the past have seen that they can enable a successful flexible workplace. Where there might have been concerns about productivity and technology, some of which may be warranted, the enforced quarantining has proven that many people respond well to this culture and that flexibility can be an advantage.

I’m looking forward to learning the outcomes of the recent UNSW staff survey on our safe return to campus. These should be available soon and will help to inform the University’s ongoing approach to flexible working. I know flexible work arrangements are also being discussed as part of the new Taskforce 20/21+ as we look at the future of the University, post-COVID.

Do you foresee a permanent shift to a more flexible working culture in Australia?

For the foreseeable future, I do see that some form of flexible work will become the new normal across many sectors, perhaps more so until a vaccine for COVID-19 is found. The government and employers have an ongoing responsibility to keep people safe.

As a University, this may also apply to academic teaching. That’s not to say that all teaching will go permanently online, but an element of online engagement for some is likely to become usual practice. This would be a definite advantage to both students and staff, for example, those with long commutes, or with family, elder care and community responsibilities, or those living with certain types of disability.

What are some pros and cons of an ongoing flexible working environment?

There are definitely two sides to this coin.

On the plus side is the ability for improved work-life integration, decreased commuter stress, more autonomy over working hours, and more time spent with family and friends. These factors can improve our mental and physical health, as well as having benefits to the environment through less traffic and consumption.

At the same time, work-life integration may not work for some because there can be fewer boundaries between work and home life. This can make it hard to switch off.

There are also those who may feel isolated, have more distractions at home or increased expenses running a home office. People have many different types of households, some of which may not be conducive to working there. In this regard, the notion of having a workplace outside the home is not going away any time soon.

I have also heard the argument that businesses can reduce overheads by having employees work from home by reducing office space costs. This is true and may very well happen to some degree. But people are social beings, so interaction with others is important for our connection with society, colleagues, family and friends.

Ultimately, we’re all different and the key word here is ‘flexibility’. It is about giving people the choices that will bring out their best.

What resources are available to UNSW staff on flexible working?

UNSW staff have access to many resources regarding flexible work.

Most important are the Flexible Work Guidelines and Flexible Work Toolkit. Flexible working arrangements do not require a ‘one size fits’ all approach. These resources provide information on the varied types of flexible work to suit individuals and leaders.

UNSW also offers great parental and carers leave options and I encourage others to become familiar with what is available.