Flexible working arrangements in the Australian Defence Force

After accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct in the Defence force in 2011 the Minister for Defence asked the Australian Human Rights Commission to conduct a review of the ADF’s treatment of women. One of the significant issues that came out of that review was the need for flexible working arrangements as a means of attracting and retaining women.

The Australia Research Council later funded a study, conducted by the Queensland University of Technology, to identify the results of implementing flexible working arrangements for Defence Force personnel.

One of the issues relevant to this study is that flexible working arrangements that only apply to women can be detrimental to women’s careers. It reinforces the gendered divide of responsibilities for family and career, and contributes to perception bias against women as committed professionals. Which is why some of the results of this study were so encouraging.

The researchers found flexible work arrangements (FWAs), including working from home, variable working hours, parental leave and changes to work locations, were made and accepted by both men and women throughout the ADF.

Associate Professor Abby Cathcart, who authored the paper with Professor Paula McDonald and Dr Deanna Grant-Smith from QUT Business School, said the findings indicated it was a myth that FWAs in the ADF were used exclusively by women.

Rather, our analysis shows that FWAs are used extensively by all personnel in the ADF with the average member making more than eight requests for flexibility in a 12-month period, and the majority of these being fully granted.

Similar proportions of men and women made requests for changes to hours of work (78.3 per cent and 78.6 per cent respectively) and a higher proportion of men requested changes to work location than women (86.7 per cent and 81 per cent).

Men were also more likely to have their requests fully granted (78 per cent) than women (73 per cent) in three of the four flexibility categories explored: changes to work hours, changes to duties and requests to change the location of work.

The official target for FWAs in the Defence Force is 2% and earlier studies in 2011 and 2012 indicated the target was not reached across all services. Service Chiefs, however, claimed there is extensive uptake of informal FWAs that is not included in the data. The QUT report substantiates such claims.

The report also referenced the results of the “Your Say” survey in 2013, which found that only 63% of women and 57% of men believed their supervisor actively supported FWAs, and 41% of women and 44% of men believed that accessing FWAs would be detrimental to their career progression.

Perceptions like these are crucial to the success of implementing FWAs in any organisation, and, as the report points out, this most often depends on supervisors and middle management, rather than lofty statements from the top. The results of the study show that non-commissioned officers and other ranks were more likely to request adjustments to work arrangements (for example time away from work) and officers were more likely to request changes in location than in working hours. This seems to suggest the perception that requesting reduced working hours could affect career progression is still in effect to a certain extent.

However, the number of requests made and granted, as described in the study, demonstrates that the use of FWAs is far wider than the data on formal requests had indicated.

The most common request was for changes to start/finish times (58%), of which 88% were fully granted, 8% were partially granted and 4% refused. The most common reason for such requests is to manage family commitments, which suggests the ADF is responding well to the needs of working parents. Given the equal rates of men and women applying for FWAs, it seems likely that both men and women in the ADF are willing and able to adjust working arrangements that cater to outside obligations.

Indeed, the study provides strong evidence that FWAs go beyond a ‘minority interest’. Rather, the majority of personnel seek FWAs, do so frequently and are successful in gaining approval for such adjustments. This was evidenced in the fact that participants had made, on average, around eight requests for flexibility in the previous 12 months across a wide variety of flexibility types, and that three-quarters of these requests had been granted.

However, very few of these requests aligned with existing, documented ADF policy as outlined in the introduction to this article. In contrast, many requests were occasional, short-term, one-off or ad hoc and, while some request categories may have been implicitly encompassed in the formal policy, they were rarely recorded as a formal FWA. Moreover, unless the agreement was for a period greater than four weeks, they were unlikely to be included in any official records.

Typical flexibility requests included adjustments such as starting work later and finishing later in order to drop children at day care, leaving early one day a week in order to participate in sport, or working from home for a set period during home renovations. Illustrating the informal nature of many requests was that they were often negotiated at the last minute and individually with supervisors; they did not involve paperwork and were not seen as a formal FWA by either the requestor or approver but rather as an individual accommodation as a reward for service.

Women at the moment make up nearly 14% of the ADF personnel, a figure that has been slowly increasing over recent years, and one the ADF has stated it wants to increase further. Changing the perception of the ADF’s workplace structures, both internally and externally, might be the most important factor in continuing to attract women to the service. Understanding the informal work practises may be of much more value in this than reporting on the formal practices that do not take into account the day-to-day mobility of work at the ADF.

Associate Professor Cathcart said that, despite the widespread use of FWAs, the ADF risked undoing its good work if it failed to adopt a “broader understanding” of what “flexibility is and can be”.

Flexible working can be informal, temporary arrangements, for example starting later and working later to take a child to school or working from home for a set period during house renovations.

Many of these sorts of FWAs are already used but there is a significant risk that the growing pressure on the ADF to deliver results may add layers of bureaucracy which will impact on how supervisors respond to requests.

Recognising the importance of formal and informal access to FWAs for both servicemen and women is likely to help the ADF in driving culture change, promoting inclusion and enabling personnel to balance serving in the defence force with commitments in their personal lives.

Perhaps this report might be just a very long way of saying if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

Jane Gilmore

Jane Gilmore is a former Editor of Women's Agenda.

Twitter: @JaneTribune

Email: JGilmore@womensagenda.com.au 

Blog: janegilmore.com