CI-thkflx-AU-CONS (COVID-19 edit)

Thinking about returning to work flexibly during isolation? These tips will help you

You were having a lovely time on parental leave (between the crying, cracked nipples and lack of sleep, that is), until the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world. 

Your ambition is strong, you’re feeling ready to return to work, but with all this uncertainty, you’ve changed your mind about what your return will look like. Do you go full-time, part-time or flex?

If you’re considering a flexible work arrangement, there’s a lot to think about, particularly in this current environment. Career expert Shannon Lyndon-Lugg’s tips will set you on the right path.

Global uncertainty or not, many parents want to meet their needs and the needs of their families by returning to work in a part-time or flexible capacity. Here are some useful pointers to help make your return more successful.

Weigh up the pros and cons

How you return to work is a very personal decision, and it’s worth taking the time to carefully consider the different working arrangements available to you. 

Under normal circumstances you might consider:

  • Does the thought of going back to the same capacity excite or worry me? 
  • Can I afford to work flexibly? 
  • Have I secured childcare? 
  • What role is my partner going to play? 

However, with isolation and social distancing measures in force, you might also want to consider:

  • If my team is working remotely, can I return full-time and work around my parenting responsibilities?
  • How many hours am I capable of working from home per week? How will this change over the coming months?
  • How are my flexible working needs different now that my team is working from home?
  • How long do I anticipate working from home for, and would it be easier to delay my return until isolation has ended?
  • If my team is working onsite, am I prepared to take the risk of bringing the virus home?
  • Can I work from home if my team is not working remotely?
  • Do I have access to childcare? Is childcare being discouraged or is it banned/closed? Do I need to make alternative childcare arrangements?

Understand your rights

Once you’ve put some thought into what you would like your return to look like, the next step is to understand your rights. The best way to do this is to visit the Fair Work Ombudsman website and read your company’s policy, if they have one.

Fair Work’s role is to work with employees, employers and the community to educate and encourage compliance with Australia’s workplace laws. They have many helpful tools including fact sheets and templates that will help you in all aspects of returning to work, including requesting flexibility.

In terms of your rights, many employees have the right to request flexible working arrangements, and employers can only refuse these requests on the basis of ‘reasonable business grounds’.

Flexible working arrangements can include working part-time, changing starting and finishing times of work, or working from home (in ‘normal’ times). To be able to request flexible working arrangements, you should have worked with the same employer for at least 12 months and will need to be the parent or carer of a child who is school-aged or younger.

Formalise your request in writing

Often parents address a request to work flexibly by having a discussion with their boss. This verbal discussion works in some cases, but can also be met with resistance or surprise by a boss who may initially be unsure how to respond.

If you are at all uncertain whether your request will be granted or if you are faced with verbal resistance, then it would be best for you to follow the Fair Work guidelines and formalise your request in writing. This written request should cover an explanation of what changes are being asked and explain the reasons for the request. This written request is referred to by many workplaces as a business case, and there are examples on Fair Work’s website for you to leverage.

The good news is that employers who receive a written request must give a written response within 21 days saying whether the request is granted or refused. They can only refuse a request on reasonable business grounds and the written response must include the reasons for a refusal.

As your written request is key, make sure you put thought and effort into documenting your request, addressing how your suggestions will impact on your colleagues, customers and the business. Remember to value the skills you have gained from being a parent and how these skills benefit the workplace—things like prioritisation, multi-tasking, goal setting and achievement are key to being a parent and a great employee.

So just what is ‘reasonable business grounds’ anyway?

Fair Work states employers can refuse requested arrangements if they are too costly, if other employees’ working arrangements can’t be changed to accommodate the request, if the request would result in a significant loss of productivity or have a significant negative impact on customer service. Now take note of the language used here—’too costly’, ‘significant loss’ and ‘significant negative impact’—and don’t be put off too easily. These words have specifically been used by Fair Work so that requests aren’t declined for trivial matters.

If you are at all unsure about what your employer has told you or feel like you are being treated unfairly, then please seek advice from the Fair Work Commission.

Written by Shannon Lyndon-Lugg. Shannon is a mother to two lovely children and the Head of Career Solutions at Career Ahead. With expertise in human resources, talent, leadership development, diversity and performance, Shannon works with individuals and companies to support career transitions and grow talent.

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