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Workplace flexibility needed to succeed in a tough environment

20 April, 2009

A near capacity audience has heard that workplace flexibility will be a key component for businesses to survive the current economic downturn, and flourish in its aftermath.

More than 190 people attended the morning Work Life Balance seminar run recently by the Labour Relations division of the Department of Commerce. Titled ‘Flexibility in a tough environment”, the seminar was addressed by three experts in the field of Work Life Balance.

Keynote speaker Professor Barbara Pocock, the inaugural Director of the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia, left the audience in no doubt the landscape of the Australian workplace is changing rapidly in the current economic climate.

Jobs had been hit, with nationally 52,000 full time positions disappearing in the past six months, and nine out of ten of those jobs had been filled by men.  The full time job losses were offset in part by the creation of 70,000 part time jobs, mostly filled by women.

Professor Pocock said Australia stood out in the OECD for its high level of part time workers, with male participation rates in decline while female participation rates are on the rise.

“The feminisation of the work force is ongoing and inevitable, and business will have to deal with this reality”.

“Flexibility and pay equity are not short term cyclical issues, like the economic downturn, but pressing long term issues which will have to be addressed”.

Elizabeth Cook, the Coordinator Work Life Balance + Equity Unit, WA Department of Health, spoke of the need for flexible strategies to retain staff, pointing out the public service suffered most of its staff losses from people with less than five years service, with the greatest losses in the first two years of service.

Cook said health faced increased demand from an ageing population while its own workforce was also ageing. “Flexibility is essential for the workforce of the future regardless of the current financial crisis”.

John Poulson, the managing partner of Minter Ellison’s in Perth, gave a private industry view, saying work flexibility programs had transformed his law firm’s workplace since they were introduced two years ago. Staff turnover had been reduced from an unacceptable 56% in late 2006 to 18% at December 2008. 

Internal staff surveys had shown a considerable lift in employee commitment with most saying they were happier and more motivated, and almost all said they would recommend it to others as a place to work. At the same time staff had grown from 160 to 203, and revenue had increased by nearly half.  Unlike many of the other major law firms Minter Ellison had not had to lay off staff because of the economic downturn.

All speakers emphasised the need for employer-employee flexibility for businesses to retain staff during tough times so all will flourish when the good times come again.

The number of guests at the seminar almost equalled last year’s record when over 200 guests attended a Labour Relations forum on Work Life Balance.

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