This article was first published in 2019. As a result of COVID-19, Army has become more familiar with Flexible Workplace Arrangements compared to when this article was first published. We think this article has aged incredibly well!!

‘…Army must focus employment principles to meet demographic and societal change. This includes building an agile and sustainable workforce through embracing Total Workforce models, implementing contemporary practices and identifying what skills Army’s future workforce needs and how these should be organised and distributed.’ - Army in Motion: Chief of Army’s Strategic Guidance 2019

The 2017 Australian Defence Force (ADF) Family Survey found that around 70% of the current ADF workforce are parents. This means that if you are in an ADF supervisory role, there is a high likelihood that one or more of your subordinates will have children. With 15.8% of families being single-parent (ABS 2016), it is also likely that your subordinates could be a primary carer of children, or one part of a working family where both parents are employed.

It is hard to understand the significance of this if you do not have dependents of your own, but it has important ramifications for how you should lead. Personally, as a junior commander I prided myself on bringing progressive flexibility to the management of my soldiers with families. I allowed late starts for school drop off, would approve carer’s days to accommodate sick children, and (the pièce de résistance) would learn the names of my soldiers' children and ask about them regularly.

Since then I have been blessed with two healthy, happy kids, and I now understand the breadth of support that I didn’t offer my subordinates, because I didn’t fully understand that their families must be their enduring first priority, just as mine are now.

Practical ways to support your soldiers

It is often said that it takes a village to raise a child, and in many ways Defence is rather like one large village. The intent of this article is to create a checklist that helps ADF supervisors provide active support to their members, particularly those who are primary carers of children and other dependents, and members on Flexible Work Arrangements (FWA).

Why is it important to actively support our people and provide flexibility when able? Because serving in the ADF is unpredictable and difficult on families. Just two weeks out field can be hard for those we leave on the home front; many units spend as much as 5-6 months on exercise over the year. Even in garrison many members do in excess of 70 hour work weeks during high intensity periods. Actively supporting flexibility is a short-term action that is good for our members and their families, but has long term benefits on the retention of talent.

Leaders can actively support their subordinates in the following ways:

  • Know policy and actively promote it
  • Ask the question and listen
  • Stomp on any stigma and lead by example
  • Change your workplace’s mindset on time and productivity

1. Know policy and actively promote it

Avoid the 'You don’t ask, you don’t get' approach to policy promotion. Most junior ranks are not exposed to the policy surrounding flexible work, leave and other administration. The role of a supervisor is to empower their subordinates with this knowledge, not wait for them to ask. 

Start the conversation during their initial interview, and check in during the year, with simple questions like:

‘Do you think you and your family could benefit from flexible work arrangements?’

The Electronic Manual of Personnel Administration (eMPA) (DPN only) is a one-stop-shop for all supervisors. It provides easy links to resources like the Defence Family Support Manual (DPN only) and MILPERSMAN (Personnel Management), as well as policy on Flexible Work Arrangements and Maternity/Paternity Leave provisions. It also contains information on the Total Workforce Model, implemented in 2016, which is the framework the ADF uses to modernise its workforce and achieve a balance between capability requirements and flexible arrangements.

The PeopleConnect DRNET FWA webpage (DPN only) is a handy site for supervisors and members requiring greater flexibility. It details both informal and formal arrangements – with formal being reported to the Career Management Agency, and informal consisting of short-term arrangements managed at unit level. A FWA should be formalised if a reduction in work hours over the pay period is requested, or the arrangements extends past a pay period.

The Career Management Agency (DPN only) is also a great resource for complex requirements. Actively engage with your member’s Career Advisors and Managers to get support in forming a flexible work plan within the policy guidelines.

2. Ask the question and listen

Leaders who take the initiative to ask family questions from an empathetic frame-of-mind will benefit by being able to design tailored work plans that optimise and balance productivity. Asking direct questions is important because the challenges of being a working parent are often out-of-sight to co-workers.

Below is a list of example questions:

  • What is your most stressful time of the day?
  • Are you managing your current workload?
  • What is your spouse’s working arrangement and do they feel supported by you and their workplace?
  • I see value in connecting with your spouse’s unit (if serving) to communicate our unit requirements and your work plan – would you be comfortable with me contacting them?
  • Have you considered outsourcing to better manage your life commitments? (Cleaner, child care, ironing services).
  • Are your child care arrangements meeting your needs? (Seek DCO support for the member to source a more appropriate arrangement).
3. Stomp on any stigma and lead by example

Stigma around FWA and work/life management still exists in the ADF. The feelings of guilt by members requesting and undertaking these arrangements are not always clearly visible but undoubtedly exist. Also, ineffective use may fuel negative perceptions. Leaders who set clear expectations around FWA will improve the likelihood that they are adopted and used effectively.

How can supervisors achieve this?

  • Manage expectations through active communication with everyone. On commencing a flexible work plan, provide a detailed brief to both the member and relevant commanders regarding the expectations of their work load, work schedule, and the timeline to formally review the arrangement.
  • Supervisors may invite spouses to join the initial discussion around an achievable work plan as it will give an opportunity to communicate service need while gaining a better understanding of family commitments.  
  • Continue to remind the member that it is their responsibility to share information with their families.
  • If the member is comfortable, the supervisor may brief the member’s immediate team on the arrangement, as well as the team’s role in supporting the member.
  • Check-in regularly to ensure expectations are being met and the boundaries of the FWA are not being breached. 
  • A significant obstacle in eliminating stigma are team members who have witnessed a misuse of flexible work in the past. Supervisors need to balance their subordinate’s responsibilities to ensure equitable service occurs for the member and their team. If a reduction in work hours is required, then a formal request needs to be submitted to the Career Management Agency so the member is remunerated appropriately.
  • If the duties of a member who is SERCAT 6 or below needs to shift to other team members, these requirements need to be actively communicated, transparent, and manageable for the affected team members.
  • The number of fathers using FWAs to care for their children has doubled since the mid-1990s, but the gendered stigma is still a major deterrent to males requesting FWA. Supervisors should be aware of, and eliminate, any form of bias in the decision making and management of subordinates.
4. Change your workplace’s mindset on time and productivity

Don’t conflate activity with productivity. Leaders who employ their staff to achieve outcomes—rather than simply parade within certain windows—will be better able to take advantage of flexible work policies. Of note, Microsoft Japan trialled a 4 day workweek as part of its 'Work Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer' project, and documented a productivity boost of 40%.

What needs to change?

  • Challenge yourself to aim for outcomes, rather than simply expect people to parade at certain times. This involves more active task and time management as well as goal setting/monitoring.
  • Take steps to eliminate ‘presenteeism’ in the workplace. Actively encourage your staff out the door. If they consistently work overtime, their role should be reviewed with an eye to rebalancing tasks. If that is not found to be the cause, then the individual may require corrective training on time management. A poor unit work/life balance will only negatively affect your peoples’ families.
  • Plan meetings outside school pick up/drop off times (school dependent).
  • Where possible, plan major activities outside of the school holidays and use these times to reduce tempo in the workplace. Encourage your people to take leave during school holidays so that those who have children can spend time with their families without feeling the remaining members of the team are having to work harder to cover for them.
  • Normalise flexibility by promoting and supporting its employment to all genders to meet their variety of personal circumstances. The Chief of Army (now CDF) recognised the importance of this shift in work practices by signing up to Male Champions of Change initiatives that support fathers in the workplace.
  • Use mobile phone apps such as Signal to check-in with subordinates who are working from home or working variable hours.

When supervisors are actively supporting their employee’s needs, the productivity, agility and cultural perception of the whole team benefits. Defence’s personnel management policy is readily available and reflects the requirements of a modern workforce. Now supervisors must work hard to promote, implement and actively support flexible work – whether informal or aligned with the Total Workforce Model - so it becomes the default work arrangement in the future. This will help the ADF retain and maintain talent while supporting greater diversity in its workforce.