Employee data from the 2017 People Matter Employee Survey reveals a number of insights about flexible working from employees:

  • While the majority of employees use some sort of flexible working, their satisfaction with their access to these arrangements can improve
  • Employees who feel positive about their career opportunities are more likely to be working flexibly, contrary to the concern that it harms career opportunities
  • The gender profile of who uses flexible working most evolves as people get older
  • Employees who work flexibly tend to take less unplanned leave
  • Flexible working use is associated with improved employee engagement, employee perceptions of their ability to manage work-stress, and their motivation to go above and beyond
  • Understanding the ways that employees commute, particularly the differences between men and women, gives insight into which flexible working options may be most useful.

The themes below include suggestions for how agencies can mine their own data and take action using the insights. This can both inform a planned initiative and monitor its progress.

The Public Service Commission will also use some of these data points to inform sector leaders on the progress of implementation of the flexible working policy commitment.

The majority of employees across the sector use some sort of flexible working

In 2017, 61% of employees report that they are using some form of flexible working arrangement, but there is a wide range in results across agencies. For example, in the Premier and Cabinet agency, the use of flexible working arrangements, particularly using more than one type, is significantly higher than the rest of the sector. See the Premier and Cabinet case study for more details.

Trends in flexible working use hold across age groups, gender and income level. Note this analysis does not try to measure how well the flexible arrangement is working, or whether the arrangement is ongoing (and formalised) or just occasional.

As this data is now available for three years (2016- 2018), agencies are encouraged to explore trends in their own data and set goals, particularly based on their 2018 results in these areas:

  • number of employees not working flexibly
  • number of employees using one type of flexible working
  • number of employees using more than one type.

Less employees, however (57%) reported in 2017 that that they are satisfied with their ability to access and use flexible working, although this range varied across clusters as well (47% - 80%). Again, agencies are encouraged to examine this data at more granular levels to identify business units or divisions where there may be significant barriers to implementation.

For example, at the sector level, while the majority of employees are satisfied with their access, closer investigation by age group reveals that the 45-59 cohort are the relatively least satisfied overall, while the 20-24 age group are the most satisfied.

Examined by salary, employees earning between $75,000 to $110,000 are the relatively least satisfied, while those earning less than $35,000 or more than $170,000 have the highest scores for being satisfied with the options they have available, noting that there are far fewer employees in these latter salary ranges overall.

People with disability or people with culturally and linguistically different backgrounds are more likely to use multiple flexible working types, and so are men compared to women. Women, however, are more likely than men to only use one type.

Job satisfaction by the type of flexible working arrangement used was also considered. Employees using place-based flexible working (i.e. working from home, working in different locations), or time-based arrangements (flexible start and finish times, flexible rostering and working additional hours to make up time) generally reported the strongest job satisfaction.

The PSC will also monitor these trends as part of its work to drive implementation, as well as encourage agencies to benchmark these numbers before and after conducting any flexible working pilots.

Employees working flexibly are more likely to have positive career opportunity perceptions

Throughout PSC consultation, many employees worried that their career or promotion prospects might suffer if they ask to work flexibly, or create a perception that they take their career less seriously. We looked at employee data to see if employees who were already working flexibly shared this perspective.

In fact, of the employees who said they were satisfied with the career opportunities in their organisation, employees working flexibly were significantly more likely to agree they were satisfied than those who were not. This pattern holds across gender (although women working flexibly have higher agreement than their male peers) and for people with different cultural or linguistic backgrounds and age groups.

Figure 2.1 Percentage of those working flexibly by career satisfaction

Do not use flexible work
37% of the people who agree they are satisfied with the career opportunities in their organisation

Use flexible work of some type
63% of the people who agree they are satisfied with the career opportunities in their organisation

Source: People Matter Employee Survey, 2017

Diving deeper into flexible working use by age groups, the highest agree scores regarding career perceptions are in the ages 30-34 and 65+, perhaps indicating the contribution that flexible working makes to assisting these employees at key points in their careers (when study or caring responsibilities are usually significant, or employees are transitioning to retirement). This may indicate the value these employees place on being able to stay engaged with their career while managing other life circumstances.

However, the relatively lower scores for this question for the 45-59 age group may echo the data on access to flexible working (which indicated this age group was relatively less satisfied with their access). Given the size of this cohort as a percentage of the total working population (42.3% of all respondents to the career opportunity question) then agencies may wish to explore what is driving this result as a ‘quick win’ opportunity for targeting their flexible working initiatives; that is, a small uplift here may have an outsize impact overall.

The experience of employees with disability differs, however, consistent with trends in other topics in the employee survey. Employees with disability have lower scores for their perceptions of career opportunity satisfaction relative to the sector average. However, their scores for it start to increase when their reported use of more than one flexible work option also increases. This insight may be useful for agencies needing to address the perceptions of employees with disability about their career opportunities, as part of the new goal of doubling the number of employees with disability working across the government sector.

Overall however, these results indicate that employees able to use a flexible working type do not report that their career options are constrained. This informs our response to the dilemmas and challenges raised in Section 3.

The PSC also examined whether employees working flexibly expressed different timeframes for their intention to stay, the closest proxy available in the employee data for retention. The results found that employees working flexibly are no more likely to express a preference to stay in their agency or in the sector any longer than those who do not, indicating that retention is a more complex factor. Given the government sector as a whole is at an early stage of its flexible working efforts, this could prove useful baseline data.

The gender profile of flexible working shifts as people get older

PSC consultation indicated that many employees still perceive flexible working as something that women do, and not really available to men. This is echoed in much of the literature, which has found that men are less likely to ask for a flexible working arrangement, and more likely to be refused if they do. 1

However, when the PSC examined the gender profile of who uses flexible working we discovered a more nuanced picture, in relative terms. While part-time (included as a form of flexible working) is overwhelmingly used by women, when the lens of age is used to analyse all flexible working types together, the picture shifts over time.

Women are far more likely to work flexibly in the classic ‘carer’ years of 30-44 years compared to men, but these proportions begin to flip after 45 years, with relatively more men gradually taking it up compared to women.

This flip is also evident at the ‘pinch point’ salary levels (the equivalent 9/10 and 11/12 clerk grades broadly considered the leadership pipeline) — for these salary levels only, more men work flexibly than women. By 55 years, men are more likely to work flexibly than women, with highest uptake at 65+. This may be because women return to full time work to supplement their retirement funds, or because of the impact of the perception of needing a ‘good reason’ to do it typically ends.

However, when looked at solely by seniority, female leaders are more likely to report working flexibly than men. This emphasises the need for male leaders (the majority of the executive
workforce) to consider their leadership shadow, and how they can best contribute to emphasising a culture of flexible working in their organisation.

The data can also inform agency efforts to address a common perception that flexible working requests must be justified (for example, by carer responsibilities). This can lead to arrangements being terminated once the justification concludes, regardless of whether it works, and risks unconscious bias creeping into decision-making.

For agencies, emphasising that flexible working can be of use at any age, for any reason, will help to shift the current age and gender profile of use, towards a goal of consistent use proportionate to the different demographics.

Those working flexibly also tend to take less unplanned leave

The PSC also examined workforce census data to see if there was a correlation between using flexible work and unplanned leave.

An analysis of agency data reveals that there tends to be lower rates of paid unscheduled absence (PUA) as the percentage of employees reporting use of flexible working options increased. Note caution is required, as this is an area where multiple factors can affect this correlation, such as type of work and demographic characteristics. Further evaluation may be undertaken by the PSC as part of its measurement framework.

Figure 1: Correlation between flexible work and unplanned absence, agency level

Employees who report they are working flexibly have significantly higher engagement than those who do not, and this engagement tended to increase as the percentage of employees using flexible working options increases.

Similarly, flexible working use is also associated with employees reporting that they are more willing to go above and beyond at work, and feel more able to keep work stress at an acceptable level.

Figure 2: Correlation between flexible work and engagement, agency level

Correlation between flexible work and engagement, agency level
Average (govt. sector) Working flexibly Engagement – not working flexibly Difference in scores (pp)
Engagement 66.28 62.46 3.82
Motivation to go above and beyond 73.20 69.71 3.49
Ability to keep work stress at an acceptable level 63.69 57.03 6.66

Source: People Matter Engagement Survey, 2017

This provides important data for agencies with a goal of improving their engagement scores and determining which levers for this may be available, particularly if the gap above is wide, and their overall engagement score is below the sector average. While the scores above do not seem wide, there is a tremendous range at the agency level.

Commuting profiles provide insight into employee perspectives

Home location and an analysis of the distances that employees travel to work, as shown in the 2017 State of the NSW Public Sector Report, provides agencies with information they can further explore, particularly if they are planning a significant change of office location and need to understand what impact this may have on employee commuting times.

The PSC looked at overall commuting profiles by gender, as a way to provide insight into the impact that successful remote working offerings could have on each gender, drawing from the workforce census data. This analysis found that fewer women (20.7%) travel long distances for work than men (30.0%), and this trend holds even if they are senior leaders.

The 2017 State of the NSW Public Sector Report noted that significantly fewer women applied for senior leadership roles than men, and this gap grows wider at each executive level. Agencies seeking to attract more job applications from potential female senior leaders may find that considering flexible working arrangements as part of the attraction mix proves beneficial, since more women report using it at leadership levels than men.

Use of flexible working arrangements by female senior leaders

Dividing leaders between frontline and non-frontline (but not by gender), our analysis shows that while non-frontline leaders make up the majority of overall leaders, more frontline leaders use flexible work.

Figure 2.8 Senior leaders and use of flexible working

  Non-frontline leaders Frontline leaders*
% of senior leaders overall 92.6% 7.4%
Senior leaders working flexibly 26.1% 35.0%

Source: People Matter Employee Survey. * Note ‘front-line’ is defined as a role in which the person spends 70% or more of their time providing services to members of the public. Agencies interpretation of this (and accordingly, their reporting of it) may differ.

Team-based Flexible Working Pilot Evaluation

Throughout 2019, we partnered with a wide range of teams and branches across the government sector to road-test the team-based design approach to flexible working: where flexibility is available to everyone in a team, while ensuring service delivery standards were either maintained or improved.