Michael Ford
Employment & Labour

Flexible workplaces the wave of the future

Employers who ignore the call for more flexible workplaces will face challenges attracting and retaining the best talent in the future, says Toronto employment lawyer Natalie MacDonald.

And companies that don’t recognize and respond appropriately to the shifting demographics in the workforce will be in for a shock, she tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“We have an aging population and a workforce balancing career and family responsibilities,” she says. “Workers shouldn’t have to choose. It’s a balancing act, and we all have to participate: employers and employees."

The "sandwich generation" — those employees who are balancing the sometimes competing priorities of young children and aging parents — is struggling, and society can do a better job supporting them, says MacDonald, co-founding partner with Rudner MacDonald LLP and author of Extraordinary Damages in Canadian Employment Law.

“We have a much different workforce than we did 20 or even five years ago,” she says. “The nuclear family doesn’t exist anymore."

MacDonald suggests the best approach is being reasonable, and she applies that to her own practice, which includes a staff of associates, assistants and other employees, all of whom are encouraged to make their schedules work for them, within reason.

“In today’s society, we need to be much more flexible in responding to the needs of employees,” she says. “One of our employees is a single mom, and we re-arranged her work hours so she can be home when her children arrive from school. And she’s able to get her work done around that.”

At the same time, MacDonald agrees employees have to be reasonable with requests for personal leave and shouldn’t expect all the giving to come from the boss. They should also recognize there are times when a physical presence in the office is necessary.

“If I’m going to trial, my assistants and associates can’t be away from the office,” she says. “But absent that, if someone has something they want to work on away from the office, why not?”

A recent study shows that empowering employees to exert control over where and when they work tends to have a big impact on productivity and well-being, reports Forbes. Some research has even shown such staff members work longer hours and call in sick less often.

MacDonald acknowledges the potential for rogue employees to take advantage of an employer’s accommodating nature, but suggests the best way to address that is on a one-off basis.

"I get that companies are concerned, but there has to be much more flexibility to allow employees to juggle their work and personal lives in the 21st century," she says. "The rigid 9-5 concept no longer works."

If, however, someone is making a habit of unscheduled time off and the employer is suspicious, they have a right to determine if it’s a valid request for accommodation, MacDonald notes.

“If you start to see a pattern, it’s more reasonable to request documentation to ensure the time off is for a legitimate reason,” she points out. “That would involve any type of evidence that supports the need for the employee to look after their child or sick family member.”

Some workplaces are more stringent than others when it comes to requiring documentation to support a need for personal time off that extends beyond a few days, but MacDonald warns that approach can breed toxic workplaces and create new headaches for organizations.

“Employers have an obligation to be fair and reasonable,” she says. “If you trust your employees, allow them some latitude from time to time on these things, particularly in situations where they are offering to make the time up.”

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