Flexible workplaces not only help employees juggle work and life outside, they also create an environment where respect, understanding and commitment thrive, says Julie Willis.


We talk a lot about the importance of family-friendly workplaces – and it is easy to assume we create family-friendly workplaces by setting up the right policies ensuring access to appropriate sources of leave. But the reality of ensuring a family-friendly workplace is far, far harder than writing some guidelines or policies.

I should note that while I focus on ‘family-friendly’, I’m well aware that such a focus can alienate those without children, who feel an unspoken pressure to cover for or go the extra mile instead of those employees with children. Family-friendliness should perhaps be recast as flexible workplaces – that is, those that acknowledge that there is a life outside work that is important and valued to the employee, and sometimes that life outside work clashes with, impedes or encroaches on work, just as work clashes with, impedes or encroaches on life at times. Really, it shouldn’t matter if it is your child who is ill or your cat; and if it is important to you, and your anxiety is high because you cannot be there for your loved one because of work, then you aren’t at your best as an employee. The hard bit, as an employer, is the inevitable clash between a staff member’s availability and the work that needs to be done and how those competing priorities are managed.

I was asked recently why I said to every new employee I hired that ‘this is a family-friendly workplace’. My interrogator said that it was clear that the workplace was family-friendly, so I probably didn’t need to emphasise it so clearly. I disagree.

It comes down to the tiny little exhale of breath I’ve heard when emphasising the family-friendly nature of my workplace. It was an involuntary small sigh of relief that escaped from a mother of two school-aged children when I recently offered a role to her and happily negotiated part-time, instead of full-time as advertised, to accommodate her family needs. Why would I accept a part-timer for a full-time role? Because she’s clearly great and unbelievably efficient. Sadly, I’ll probably get more from her in a part-time role than I would from someone else as a full-timer (so the role remains available to her as a full-time position, should she want to take it up). But that little sigh – I heard and I recognised it. I recognised the same sigh I’d emitted when I told my then boss I couldn’t make an 8am meeting because my childcare didn’t open until 7.45am and I couldn’t physically cross the distance between the childcare centre and workplace in 15 minutes. He responded by declaring the meeting, henceforth, would commence at 9am with no further questions. He followed that up, whenever a child was ill, with a ‘family comes first’ no-fault permission to leave work instantly. Indeed, I didn’t need to ask. I knew I had his full and utter support to do whatever was needed. And what a relief it was – that unwavering support made me a better employee, one who no longer wondered nervously about the impact of life on my work, one who was able to juggle the chaos of family life with so much more confidence, and without needing to make awful compromises. It made a huge difference to me, and I’m committed to paying it forward.

So, that realisation of just how important it is to clearly articulate the culture of a workplace – to live the reality of the policies and guidelines and make a real commitment to allowing flexibility – is why I will keep saying it. Even just the knowledge of flexibility can be enough for some – a back-up plan in case it all goes pear-shaped.

As I write, one of my colleagues is face-timing his toddler daughter to catch up on her day, even though he will work late because of an event. And he’s introducing the whole office – it isn’t something that he’s furtively doing in a corner. Everyone is completely relaxed about the interaction, waving hello and returning to their tasks as needed. It’s a great example of how a family-friendly or flexible workplace just takes in its stride important aspects of real life that intersect with the demands of work. And they aren’t always the big things – sometimes the tiniest, like chatting to your daughter towards the end of her day, are the most important.

Yes, at times it is hard to be so unfailingly supportive. There are periods in which the deadlines and demands at work are overwhelming, and all available hands on deck are necessary. That’s when you really demonstrate whether you believe in a flexible workplace – for if family (in whatever way you define it) really comes first, then it has to be the case under every circumstance. I know that most employees who are allowed this flexibility, give back in spades. It is not a privilege they treat lightly. They consider it a deep commitment and a valuing of them as a member of staff. As a result, they respond in kind and it builds mutual respect and understanding.

That little sigh – I’ll be listening for it again. And I’ll continue emphasising the family-friendly nature of our workplace again and again.

Julie Willis is Dean and Professor of Architecture at the Faculty of Architecture, Building & Planning at the University of Melbourne. She is an architectural historian and educator whose research focuses on Australian architecture.