International Women’s Day 2017 urged us to “be bold for change” to help forge a better working world.  While bold change may still be required when it comes to equal pay for equal work or female representation on boards, achieving more inclusive workplaces that embrace equality through flexible work arrangements is well within reach of businesses of all sizes.

The gender equality scorecard published by  Workplace Gender Quality Agency reports that over 70% of Australian employers in 2016 have established a gender equity policy, up from 66% in 2014. Featuring second only to prevention of sex-based harassment in these policies is the provision of flexible working arrangements.

The mindset of “work is a thing I do, not a place I go” is not necessarily exclusive to millennials or funky start-ups. During her time as Managing Director at Microsoft Australia Pip Marlow embraced this philosophy, breaking the connection between desk and office space with the perception of productivity. No longer restricted by the four walls of the office, Marlow could be found working in cafes, customers’ offices or even on occasion from the carpark of her children’s school.

This desire for greater personal flexibility and the ability to shape their own work schedule weighs heavily in creating a positive work environment and filters through to the job selection process. In fact, recent research by HR software developer Justworks revealed that 70 percent of employees consider flexible work hours “very important,” and nearly half would accept a lower paying job in exchange for greater workplace flexibility.

Despite this popularity, and executive level support in organisational policy, flexible work arrangements are not yet the norm for most people. Research on the Australian Public Service (arguably one of the most progressive employers in pursuit of gender equity in the workplace) has found that without practical guidance on how to achieve the desired changes, flexible work isn’t as easy for middle management to implement as it is for senior leadership to champion. Since 2013 organisations like Yahoo and Reddit famously banned remote working practices, in the fear that a geographically diverse workforce will perform less effectively without the benefit of in-person collaboration.

So how can flexible work options – a key factor in the race to attract and retain good people and establish a truly equitable workplace – make the leap from policy initiative to operating reality? Technology is clearly an enabler for making flexible workplaces work.

As a technologist, business owner, and manager of a distributed team, here’s some practical guidance that I’ve found effective in making a flexible workplace work:

  1. Flexibility …. within a range of movement

Strict rules around what is or is not possible kind of defeats the point of ‘flexibility’, but everyone needs to understand from the outset how far the workplace can bend before it will break. From the company’s point of view, that means knowing what can and can’t be negotiated – front-line customer service for example.  Being clear and consistent on responsibility for any costs associated with alternate work practices will also help foster an arrangement that works well for everyone.

  1. Embrace technology to nail teamwork and collaboration

Technology is one of the essentials of modern business, and the tools you’re using already will likely go much of the way already to supporting employees wherever they choose to work. Both Microsoft and Google, as popular email and productivity suite choices across a range of businesses, offer a mature cloud interface that allows access from anywhere. Voice over IP telephony, instant chat applications like Slack, and cloud-based document management like fileplan are increasingly part of the modern workplace toolkit.

Other tools, like OfficeMaps, can help keep distributed teams productive by sharing accurate information on when and where individuals are available to work. A visual staff directory that helps people locate colleagues both physically and functionally within the organisation, OfficeMaps can help identify which days each individual is scheduled to work for this week and the next, and status indicators show whether each team member is available to be contacted.

  1. Manage for outcomes, not activity

A results-based management framework where KPIs, objectives, goals, aims or other results are transparent and clearly described quickly reveals whether a person is meeting their objectives. This is a good management tool regardless of how or where individuals choose to work. When given greater autonomy to decide how they achieve these agreed outcomes, they work more productively and are more engaged.

This is another area in which technology can help. At Radix Software, half of our team regularly work away from the office, even in different time-zones. Although I don’t see my staff sitting at their desks every day, we leverage knowledge management, unified communications and collaboration technology to ensure great outcomes are delivered.

Making flexibility the new normal

One thing that’s clear in 2017 is that workplace flexibility is not just a women’s issue. Men and women both seek the flexibility and reward of continuing to develop successful professional careers in a manner that allows them to undertake further study, raise children, care for ageing parents or pursue other outside work interests like charity work.

With technology like OfficeMaps and Slack breaking down communication and collaboration barriers, cultural transformation that makes flexibility the new normal is the final step required to bridge the gap between policy ideal and practical implementation.