Australian Economy

Flexible workplaces are the winners in the war for talent

But the COVID-19 pandemic made many bosses realise life could go, and some have made a virtue of offering greater flexibility to attract and retain talent, particularly women.

Independent law firm Maddocks hired 56 people last financial year, 68 per cent of whom were women. The company’s total staff gender composition is now 74.4 per cent women, up from 71.6 per cent in 2014.

Sonia Sharma made partner at the firm as she homeschooled her two primary school-aged children as a single mum.

The 41-year-old said good lawyers were approached almost daily by recruiters to lure them elsewhere, and law firms needed to rethink the support structures offered to employees or risk losing top talent.

Sonia Sharma, here with her son Atticus, made partner at Maddocks law firm while homeschooling her two children as a single mum during the pandemic.  Steven Siewert

“COVID really put flexibility on the map, and it broke down lots of the ways we work,” Ms Sharma said. “I’m a single mum with sole custody of two kids running a partnership, but I feel like I bring my whole self to work.”

Sydney-based architecture firm BVN has hired 93 people in the past year, 60 per cent of which were women. BVN’s total staff is now 51 per cent female, up from 44 per cent in 2014.

Ms Barfield said the entire workplace situation had changed.

“People have been locked away, especially in Victoria, and the net result is people are fatigued, and they want to spread their wings,” she said. “But I’ve seen that under this hybrid model, productivity has actually gone up.”

Better life balance

Independent economist Saul Eslake said when it came to flexibility leading to greater productivity, there were many issues at play.

“Employees would feel more motivated and probably more positive and more engaged in their work and more likely to feel their employer values their efforts and would apply themselves more conscientiously,” he said.

That would improve productivity at a firm level.

But to the extent lower-skilled workers moved into jobs, that would lower productivity in the aggregate – at least initially. “But over time, their skills and their productivity would improve,” Mr Eslake said.

Yume, Maddocks and BVN rode the wave of increased female workforce participation, with five out of six new hires being women in the past year.

Female participation in the year to April was up almost a full percentage point and is still hovering near record highs. Participation for males, by comparison, was 70.7 per cent, the same as in March 2020.

There are almost 401,000 more people in employment than at the start of the pandemic, and women make up 60 per cent of the newly employed.

Barrenjoey chief economist Jo Masters said the greater flexibility being demanded and offered post-pandemic was working to break down a key barrier for parents getting into the workforce.

Ms Masters said the increase also coincided with a significant lift in the cost of living, which could also explain why more women were getting back into the workforce to help pay the bills. “There’s both a carrot and a stick,” she said.

Amid a shortage of childcare places and workers, increased flexibility could also help people who traditionally were unable to access childcare get back into work.

“You might have one partner working from home two days per week and another working three days, and you can juggle to make ends meet,” Ms Masters said.

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