Talking about workplace flexibility isn’t enough: Datacom’s Alex Coates

Leadership

Flexibility has become a precious currency, and employers need to trust staff to get the job done, whether in the office or not.
Datacom Managing Director – Australia, Alex Coates | Image source: Supplied

Demand for workers has been trending downward for the better part of the last six months, says Deloitte Access Economics partner David Rumbens, and Australia’s unemployment rate lifted to 3.7% in January, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Employment fell for a second consecutive month, hours worked declined for a third month, and the unemployment rate rose by a tangible amount to a nine-month high. “Combine these indications with other leading and timely indicators of the jobs market, such as job advertisement and job vacancies, which have also fallen recently, and it seems that the labour market is starting to loosen,” says Paul Bloxham, HSBC Chief Economist, Australia, NZ.

The latest edition of Deloitte Access Economics’ quarterly Employment Forecasts report suggests that during 2023, the slowing domestic economy will likely result in an employment decline across construction, retail trade and mining. Still, some industries will likely withstand the economic headwinds, including health care, professional services, and logistics.

Deloitte Access Economics expects employment to grow by 1.3% in 2023 – much slower than the 4.0% experienced in 2022.

There is a growing list of US companies ordering their employees to return to the office, some even full-time. So far, this trend is yet to occur in Australia, at least in a meaningful way, as the labour market remains tight and businesses are still wary that they won’t be able to find new workers, Deloitte Access, Economics’ Rumbens, writes in the report.

“The jury is still out on whether widespread working from home is aiding or detracting from productivity,” Rumbens says. “But whatever the answer (and it’s likely to differ by occupation and workplace), workers may find fewer employment options with skill shortages becoming less severe. Expect employers to have a greater say over workplace norms in 2023 as labour market pressures ease.”

However, Datacom Managing Director – Australia Alex Coates says flexibility has become a precious currency. In a Q&A with Forbes Australia, she advocates that employers need to trust staff to get the job done, whether in the office or not.

What do employers need to offer to generate the best possible working relationship with employees in the current work environment? 

AC: Fostering open and honest communication within teams and across your organisation is still the best foundation for good working relationships. It is essential that employees feel safe to raise issues and challenge decisions if they think something isn’t right. One of Datacom’s core values is “Courage to act”, and we encourage our team to speak up and ask for help if they need it and to call out behaviours that don’t fit our values.

Given that we’ve got more people working from home, more of the time, we’re focusing on keeping up regular internal comms, sharing stories on our internal and external channels that people can connect with, and looking for reasons to get together when it makes sense. 

What differences/changes has your business used to assist employees in working at their best no matter where they are? 

AC: One of the biggest things our leadership team does is make it very clear that we genuinely believe in flexibility and that we want people to find the right balance between their work and home commitments. Talking about workplace flexibility isn’t enough, so I make sure my team and colleagues can see that I take time to be with my children and family – I think if people can see those behaviours, they know it is a real priority for the business. When employees have that flexibility, it reduces anxiety and pressure and allows them to focus on what they need to do.

As a working mum, flexibility has become an incredibly valuable currency. It means I get to be present at work and home. I find the mix of both being in the office and then being at home when I need to be incredibly empowering. Therefore, I can be the best version of myself for my colleagues, our customers, and my family.

THE LIST

When employers insist on workplace practices that could challenge employees, what is it they fear, and how can they help themselves to be more practical or accommodating? 

AC: For some employers, I think there is still a nagging suspicion that if they can’t physically see what their employees are doing, then people might be wasting time or not getting the job done. There are some obvious issues with that way of thinking – it shows a real lack of trust in their people, and it ignores the fact that the most important ‘measure’ is whether your team is achieving the goals and outcomes you have set together. There are so many great tools these days to help manage projects and set tasks and milestones along the way. If employers are truly worried about productivity, they should try implementing something that the whole team can use to support their work – rather than setting arbitrary rules about being in the office daily.

What is the biggest challenge employers are facing at the moment, and what are you seeing that can help solve any difficulties being encountered? 

AC: It is still a very tight talent market, and there is growing demand for skills in key technology areas, such as cloud and cybersecurity. Datacom’s approach to talent shortages is to take responsibility for helping to upskill people and to be proactive and supportive in attracting new talent into the tech sector both locally and internationally. We have established a lot of internships and mentoring programs externally and internally with initiatives like Connect Academy. We’re also partnering with others in the tech sector, such as the AWS re/Start program, to help develop the skills we need and grow our workforce.

With such fierce competition for talent, it is also more important than ever to keep your team engaged and remind them why their work matters. Take the time to celebrate the wins. At Datacom, for example, it’s not the tech itself that gets us excited; it’s that the projects we get to work on with organisations in transport, energy, government, education and health make a real impact in people’s lives across Australia.

How does technology make a difference in enabling workers to execute their work and home life responsibilities? 

AC: Doing your best work doesn’t come down to the office you’re sitting in, it is about having access to the information you need when you need it and being able to connect with the right people. Cloud platforms mean access to people and information is easier than it ever has been before, no matter where you are, and that means you can focus on work when you need to and use the flexibility this provides to make time for family and other non-work passions.

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