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Ken Phillips is co-founder and Executive Director of Independent Contractors of Australia. He is a published authority on independent contractor issues and directs research on related commercial and trade practices issues. Through his numerous articles in newspapers and think-tank and academic journals, Ken is known for approaching issues from outside normal perspectives and is frequently sought out for media comment.

Managing in a Flexible Work Environment Commentary

Sunday, August 12, 2012

This is a commentary on the Australian Institute of Management discussion paper, Managing in a Flexible Work Environment.

The AIM paper is a wake-up call to managers who are locked in to the idea that efficient and effective work requires staff to be locked into a rigid organizational timetable. AIM accepts that the prevailing managerial concepts of the ‘ideal worker’ is “someone who is able to work full time, and to be solely committed to their job.”
AIM says that this concept no longer fits with the realities of a changed society and of totally changed work situations. Further, where flexibility has been applied in workplaces, higher levels of productivity and innovation have been evident.  

Independent Contractors Australia comes at this issue from the perspective of self-employed people—that is, people who run and are micro and small business operators. This small business segment, which includes the employees in small businesses, make up 70 per cent of the workforce. The AIM discussion, as relevant as it is, focuses on the ‘big end’ of town: the 30 per cent who work in big business and government, (split about 50/50).

Managerial discussion by AIM and big organization managers see ‘flexible work’ as a challenge to efficient work operations. But for people working in small business, flexible work is a normal and required part of everyday life. This is driven in part by lifestyle choices, but more by the demands of the marketplace, that is customers, and the concept and practice of ‘flexibility’ is therefore different from that facing large concerns.

A large organization/firm is capable of protecting its workers from the vagaries and realities of the marketplace. In small businesses, no such protection exists or is possible. This is because, for small concerns, the marketplace is ‘in your face’ every day.  

What’s happening, however, is that a massively changed and changing world of work is causing the realities of the marketplace to penetrate the inner workings of large organizations. The protections once offered to employees are now exceedingly hard to maintain. To cope with quickly changing markets, large organizations are under pressure to have the flexibility that is the daily bread and butter of small business available to big business. This is where AIM talks of increased performance and innovation.

The reality is that flexibility in work is needed to respond to the life demands of people working in firms but also to the market demands of clients.

This is where small business has decided advantages over big business. Technology is rapidly creating an environment where networks of small business people can perform the once traditional functions of big business, but do this with greater innovation, flexibility and responsiveness to markets.

The managerial challenge that AIM talks about is not, in fact just to ‘managers’, but to the very concept of big organizational processes. That is, how do big organizations maintain innovation? AIM is saying that flexible work is part of that.

But I think the challenge is much bigger than just flexibility. It’s much more about how organizations allow and accept the vagaries of the market to enter the very sinews of the firm. Small business people do this by the very nature of their existence. Big organizations, whether government or private business bureaucracies, resist this.

I first wrote about this in 2001, for the Institute of Economic Affairs in London and in my subsequent book Independence and the Death of Employment. So far, I can’t say that the issues have changed much!
Juel commented on 14-Aug-2012 12:24 AM
I couldn’t agree more. Big corporations design and lobby for stuff that just doesn’t work for SME’s and private contractors (and they present themselves as representing all businesses…….grrr…..). These managers in big corporations haven’t got an ounce
of skin “in the game”, they can just move on to their next job if things screw up. They don’t loose their and/or their family’s savings and house, their parents/kids/siblings/spouse don’t usually work in the same business and so have a secure job. I am so
OVER corporate managerialism, it’s often not much different to the public service.
Michael commented on 14-Aug-2012 12:58 PM
With the NBN coming online flexible remote practices in business will grow dramatically. Even the tax laws will need to catch up with it

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