Athalie Williams is the chief people officer at BHP Billiton. In this special report, she outlines the importance of business flexibility – and it's not just about working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m often asked about flexible working and I say, if we can do it, there’s no excuse for any company in Australia,” says BHP’s Athalie Williams. “It’s about thinking with innovation and creativity and being open to solutions that might not be obvious in terms of what flexible working could look like.”
Indeed, a mining company may not seem like an obvious leader when it comes to flexible working, given that many of its roles happen in trucks and on mine sites well away from offices. But since 2016, BHP has worked hard to ensure a vast proportion of its workforce can operate with some kind of flexible arrangement. How vast? “We were due to [do a new] survey then the coronavirus hit,” says Williams. “But it was about 46 per cent last time we checked in.” This meant that while some companies scrambled to get their employees operating remotely when the COVID-19 crisis rapidly unfolded, BHP was already well positioned. “It really helped us transition to a full-scale working-from-home environment during the current pandemic.”
For BHP, bringing in flexibility addressed not only the need to adapt to the ways that automation was changing how employees worked but also a crucial goal of reaching gender balance by 2025. Now, it’s viewed by the company as a “source of competitive advantage”, says Williams. “We knew that one of the critical impediments to increasing female participation was a lack of flexibility but what’s been surprising is finding that men and women value flexibility equally. There’s been a huge take-up by men.” She’s quick to add that it’s not just about working from home. “It’s being used by our long distance commuters and our residential employees who are site-based. We’ve put in place flexible rosters, we’ve put in place job-sharing. All of this has changed the prevailing mindset that you can only work flexibly if you’re an office-based employee.”
Even though Australia boasts high rates of flexible working arrangements – a 2018 Workplace Gender Equality Agency report showed that more than 70 per cent of Australian organisations in the private sector have flexible working strategies and policies – many companies have been reluctant to adopt increased flexibility. They’re often “a bit fearful and not quite sure how to do it”, says Williams, who believes those days need to be behind us. “COVID-19 has busted once and for all the myth that when you’re working from home, you’re not really working. I think it’s helped shift how we measure performance – from being time in the office to a real focus on outcomes.” In her view, those companies that continue to resist flexibility in the post- COVID world will be creating challenges for themselves. “I think there’ll be a growing groundswell of people who realise it’s possible to work very productively in far more flexible ways and that people will be demanding more autonomy and choice. The companies that are able to put in place the right infrastructure, technology and support for employees will be the ones that benefit over the longer term.”
Technology is key. That’s not just the equipment, says Williams. It’s also access to effective internet, resolving any cyber-security issues and having reliable videoconferencing facilities. “You just can’t make it available to a few. Inside BHP [prior to coronavirus], almost every meeting invite we sent out would include Webex login details. There’s no expectation that you’re going to be physically in the office to attend a meeting but you are expected to attend.”
Still, even the most flexible workplaces would have to recognise there are situations where you can’t beat having everybody in the one room. If we’re to continue down the path this crisis has set us on, even when the health obstacles have passed, how do we marry these factors? “I absolutely agree that there is always a need for people to collaborate in the same location,” says Williams. “You get phenomenal outcomes when you bring a group of people together to solve problems, to brainstorm. And we know it’s also better for mental health and wellbeing when people have that opportunity for personal connection.” But she cautions against being prescriptive with employees about how this looks “because then I think you’re not creating flexible working options and choices for people”.
Once leaders overcome the perception that employees won’t put in the same effort if they’re not in the office or there are physical barriers (in BHP’s case, driving trucks) and employees are no longer worried that flexible working will affect their career progression, Williams believes companies need to allow individuals to decide how flexibility will work best for them. “I can’t solve what flexible working might look like for one of our teams working in our iron ore business in the Pilbara. And what I want in terms of flexible working is going to be very different to what you want. What we’ve found in asking teams to have the discussion and making it safe to bring up the topic of flexible working is that they are incredibly creative about what’s possible when you hand the problem over to them – they come forward with ideas. For me that’s far more powerful than a set of policies about what’s permitted and what isn’t.”
Ultimately, she says, “we’re moving away from this idea that being professional is eight to 10 hours a day spent sitting at a desk in Collins Street, Melbourne. It’s actually collaborating with the people you need to, in order to produce the results and solve the problems.”