Australia has been the lucky country in the years following the 2008 global financial slowdown. However, as individuals, we’ve never quite believed that our economy was strong and recent warnings of slowing growth in China, (our largest trading partner) falling iron ore and coal prices, youth unemployment, as well as talk of a housing bubble following surging prices in our principal cities, have served to fuel national anxiety. The reality is, however, that Australia is actually well placed to transition to a new, broader-based economy, less reliant on commodities.
There is emerging consensus that growth needs to be innovation-led. The change envisaged is not incremental but potentially transformational. It will need a combination of discipline and courage, not least from our major companies who must lead the pursuit of new sources of revenue and growth. For HR this is not business-as-usual. Many of the policies, systems, processes and behaviours (our working cultures) which have served us so well at the end of the 20th Century need to be re-designed to fit the more dynamic market conditions of the 21st Century. This is an opportunity to engage all employees in designing their own futures.
One important enabling condition is the need for greater “flexibility” and there is evidence that Australian employers and their people are embracing it with alacrity. Last year Aecom, a global provider of management and technical services, analysed workplace surveys conducted by its clients to understand their employees desire to work away from the office. They found that between 31% and 54% of employees across the Resources, Finance, Retail and Media sectors would appreciate doing so for 1 to 2 days a week. This has important implications for the leasing of space in commercial buildings, for employee health and wellbeing, for workforce participation, for productivity and other areas such as transport infrastructure and the life of our cities.
Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company with more than 35,000 employees, has demonstrated how Government legislation and leadership can work with employers and their people to accelerate the process of change. At the end of 2013 CEO, David Thodey, introduced an initiative known as “All Roles Flex”, becoming the first large corporation in Australia to ensure that everyone had access to flexible ways of working. This followed the introduction of the Federal Government’s Fair Work Act 2009, enshrining in law the right to request flexible working arrangements. It also followed two years of working with around twenty other corporate and Government leaders as Male Champions of Change, a group established by Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, to help accelerate development of women as leaders. “What I really like about this approach is that it disrupts the status quo and encourages open conversations right from the start.” David Thodey wrote in November 2013.
Telstra, along with many Australian companies (for example ANZ, NAB, Westpac, CBA, Suncorp, Lend Lease, Macquarie Bank) has over the last decade embraced the inclusive design of the workplace as yet another opportunity to have that conversation with their people about the future. It has given employees and other stakeholders, most notably customers, a voice in the design of the company’s future. It has reduced the cost of accommodation, created spaces which support collaboration, resulted in healthier, more flexible and environmentally more responsive buildings. This has put power in the hands of the organisation’s people to connect freely with others and to better manage their work and careers. This moment in history, and not just Australia’s, is an opportunity for the HR team to lead from the front, as thought leaders about the future of work, setting the need for change in the wider national and global context.
It must necessarily start with HR undergoing its own transformation, reimagining its role in developing and executing business strategy and reconfiguring its skill base so that its traditional strengths in supporting the management of people is balanced by strengths in leading business and culture transformation. Be prepared for conversations which are disruptive of the status quo but which facilitate innovative solutions to increasingly complex problems.