Bite Magazine: Workplace flexibility - Michelle Gibbings

Thanks to John Burfitt and Bite Magazine for inviting Michelle to share her insights on workplace flexibility, for open conversations between employers and employees to identify what flexibility means to each individual and how to set clear parameters that align with business requirements.

Workplace flexibility has emerged as a key expectation of employees in the post-pandemic landscape. But just how realistic is this in dentistry? By John Burfitt

The COVID-19 pandemic activated a seismic shift in the way companies do business as employers across the board were forced to make big changes. One was that many had to rethink their attitude to workplace flexibility. Now that the worst of the pandemic is over, only to be replaced by the today’s current problem of a skills shortage, flexibility has become not just something employees want but also expect.

According to a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute, three elements of flexibility are essential for employers to consider in the modern workforce: where work can be done, when work can be done and how work can be done.

The report also claims organisations cannot afford to ignore the demands for flexibility, especially as 44 per cent of people who left the workforce during the pandemic listed their top reason for returning as flexibility.

It’s a similar story in data from the global development organisation Atlassian, which shows 43 per cent of workers are today employed to perform a combination of office and remote work. This figure is up from 27 per cent in 2021.

But in a service profession such as dentistry, this call for flexibility presents something of a conundrum. Just how does a practice function to provide a top-level service to its patients, while allowing flexible working conditions that also suit the lifestyles of its employees?

“All healthcare providers are in the same boat with this issue as the necessity of being physically present to attend to patients governs the hours of operation and staffing,” dental practice management consultant Julie Parker says.

“Understanding why team members are asking for flexible working conditions is crucial to being able to find solutions. Common reasons are childcare, elder care or achieving a balance between personal and professional lives. So, responding effectively to requests for flexibility is important as an abrupt ‘no’ will leave the employee with either nowhere to go or seeking better conditions elsewhere.”

The quest for better flexibility, Parker adds, may demand that the practice owner and manager achieve a far better understanding of each staff member’s job responsibilities, before seriously considering what adaptations could be made or what work could be done just as effectively remotely.

“Roles like the practice manager or bookkeeper can allow for more flexibility, but in the case of a dental practitioner or front receptionist, then a more innovative approach may be necessary.

“This is when such scenarios as shift work, job-sharing and part-time contracts can provide much-needed flexibility, as can time off without pay or swapping shifts. It may require some creative, innovative thinking, just so long as employees are aware of the business-patient considerations when seeking solutions. It needs to become a matter of keeping the conversations open.”

“Understanding why team members are asking for flexible working conditions is crucial to being able to find solutions. Common reasons are childcare, elder care or achieving a balance between personal and professional lives” – Julie Parker, dental practice management consultant

According to workplace expert Michelle Gibbings, author of the book Career Leap: How to Reinvent and Liberate Your Career, remote working is only relevant for about 30 per cent of the workforce. But in the wake of the dramatic shifts the pandemic necessitated, the other 70 per cent are having to find new ways of functioning.

“In a service role like dentistry, it is hard to do that remotely as the fact is the practitioner and the patient need to be in the same room at the same time,” she says.

Which is why she believes the demand for workplace flexibility needs to be met with better standards of communication among everyone within the business.

“We are in a new era with employees being far more upfront about their expectations of workplace flexibility. So, to retain good employees, employers need to be more open to talking about this and negotiating outcomes that work,” she says.

The first step in such a process needs to be identifying exactly what flexibility means to each employee. “You need to be clear about what that actually means from both sides because once you are clear on their perspectives and where they are coming from, then you can think about what’s possible and practical.

“At the same time, you also need to be clear about setting clear parameters so any flexible arrangements you agree on still work for the everyday requirements of running the business. If you want to be a good leader and run a happy team, then listen to your team and do so in more ways than you have in the past.”

Sunshine Coast orthodontist Dr Vas Srinivasan has a team of 25 working across his two practices. He’s found offering a high level of flexibility among his team has become a cornerstone in creating a strong business culture.

“I’ve always said that we can make our work bend around what our team wants, rather than the other way around, and as a result, that strikes a happy balance and creates a harmonious culture, especially for staff who are also young parents and may need to factor in school pick-ups and drop-offs,” he says.

“What I have seen is if you provide a level of flexibility, then your staff will often bend over backwards to help out when you find yourself in a challenging time, like being understaffed. The commitment to the job becomes strong as you are offering a workplace that is fair.”

Even so, there are times when the demands for flexibility and the basic requirements of the job may not match up. If that happens, Michelle Gibbings suggests implementing a flexible working arrangement for a trial period to test if it is feasible … otherwise it might be best to part ways.

“This is why good communication is key, as you need to be open to new ways of working. When you know a situation is not going to work for the practice, be clear on making the call on that and discussing this appropriately. Again, this is about good leadership.”

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