GONE are the days where companies can afford to be inflexible with their employees’ working arrangements. This has never been more apparent than through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The world around us has changed so dramatically that even the most traditional companies have needed to pivot and find new ways to be productive.
The immediate response to the pandemic resulted in a “lift and shift” approach for most people who went from working in the office five days a week, to working exclusively from home for long periods of time.
However, flexibility can come in many forms – from working remotely long-term or ad-hoc, to offering options in job-sharing, or part-time and flexible hours across a working week.
A research report from leading global professional services company Accenture revealed 83 per cent of their workers identified the hybrid work model as optimal, where they sometimes work remotely and sometimes go onsite. The report found 63 per cent of high-growth companies have adopted a “productivity anywhere” work approach. Accenture has responded to the changing work environment by evolving their HR policies and practices to ensure they are supporting their workers’ holistic well-being, increasing productivity and unlocking their full potential.
Similarly, Australian leading telecommunications company Optus launched a Blended Ways of Working toolkit in May 2021, just as Sydney was returning to the office post the COVID-19 restrictions and before the second-wave lockdown hit.
Kate Aitken, Head of People and Culture at Optus and a Co-Founder of the Minerva Network, says Optus takes the hybrid model to the next level.
“We actually commit to the flexibility,” Aitken says. “We don’t underestimate the value of social contact, the energy that’s created and the opportunity to learn from face-to-face interactions. The unplanned social and informal interactions that happen in the office are quite important, but this approach also recognises that some work is done better outside of the office, and it also supports commitments outside of work.”
Aitken says the Blended Ways of Working model is ideal for athletes and enables them to plan their work around their training commitments.
“Professional athletes have a mostly predictable training and competition schedule. The blended approach gives them some control and allows them to plan with their teams what days work for everyone to come to the office together,” she says.
At Accenture, the business offers a range of flexible arrangements, including part-time roles.
“Our flexible policy is open to everybody. We like to see staff taking up those options, other than being limited to parents. Longer term we’re looking to set up employee engagement models so staff can dip in an out. It works for our organisation because ours is mainly project-based work. And we also have purchased leave programs so our staff can access additional leave,” says Sarah Kruger, Managing Director - Human Resources.
Achieving a good work/life balance is many people’s version of Utopia. Olympic medallist, Minerva Network Mentor and leading civil engineering executive at Aurecon, Jane Waldburger, acknowledges that what companies like Aurecon do well is they “walk the talk” when it comes to a good work/life balance, including encouraging mothers back into the workforce.
“Like many parents, elite athletes have restricted hours. They cannot attend late-night meetings or work extended hours on the fly . . . it’s non-negotiable because they have significant commitments outside of work. True flexibility must be transferable,” Waldburger says.
More and more, leading companies are looking at new ways of attracting multi-skilled individuals, such as professional athletes, into their ranks including offering up entry-level opportunities.
“An athlete who has been to three Olympics and is say, an engineer graduate, still needs help getting a foot in the door. They have all these connections in the sporting world but usually none in the corporate world. Graduate programs are ideal entry-level positions, and they also offer up some flexibility,” Waldburger says
“They don’t need the promise of a life-long commitment by the company – although interestingly enough a really good experience from both sides might very well result in one! Athletes are a unique breed – they know how to read people and situations, and as soon as they are provided opportunities, chances are they will broaden their network,” Waldburger adds.
Australian bobsleigh pilot and multi-sport athlete, Ashleigh Werner, knows this well. Employed at Accenture as a Senior Analyst, she first joined through their graduate program in 2019 and has never looked back.
“Professional athletes are not just talented and gifted. We are high-achievers, self-determined and will work hard to deliver our best. This attitude translates well into the workplace,” Werner says.
“I didn’t know flexibility was an option. I thought that working a corporate job would mean the end of my athletic career. But working for Accenture made me realise how possible it is to achieve a balance.”
In addition to being flexible with time, Werner says, there needs to be a level of emotional flexibility.
“It’s a very intimidating position to be in to ask for help – as a female who is new to the corporate world, if someone asked me to stay late, I found it difficult to say no, despite how emotionally invested in my sport I was.”
Her managers, however, identified that Werner was burning out. Between training early in the morning for a few hours before arriving in the office at 8am, only to then return to training after work, she wasn’t getting any down time to rest and recover.
One of her managers instructed her to finish work at 3pm so that she could work around her training schedule instead of the other way around.
“The Accenture team have been incredible,” Werner says. “They appreciate me for my time in the office as well as outside. I’ve been on an extended break so that I can train full-time and compete at the 2022 Winter Olympics. They’re super supportive of me, excited for me, and are following my journey.
“I’m looking forward to returning to work in March 2022, under flexible arrangements, and continuing my training, as well as completing my Master of Business Psychology which will allow me to give more value back to Accenture,” she says.
A real go-getter, Werner has already completed a double-degree in BA Business/International Studies, between balancing her demanding training schedule and work.
Waldburger and Werner share the sentiment that organisations should celebrate and provide a positive platform for the great athletes that work for them.
“Athletes are good communicators and team players and make great facilitators and speakers,” Werner says.
“It’s really important that they tactfully and unashamedly celebrate them, their achievements and their skills,” Waldburger adds.
The Minerva Network has a strong focus on helping their elite athletes establish early pathways and identify how their interests off the field can be best supported by the skillsets they have.
Connecting with their mentors, who are celebrated leading executive women themselves, affords the athletes a rare opportunity to gather useful workplace and career coaching advice and insights they might not otherwise access.
Besides the obvious monetary benefit, working in business exposes an athlete to an expanded network beyond their sporting career, it builds their confidence, delivers a welcome diversion from competitive sport, and helps establish an early and important foundation which could eventually lead them to a life-long and equally successful career in business once they retire from their sporting career.
“Athletes can be very self-centred and worried. During my professional water polo playing years, work offered a healthy break from my professional athletic career. It boosted my mental health and gave my brain a stretch – something else to focus on – and broke up my day,” Waldburger says.
Waldburger remembers being envious of her teammates who didn’t have to work because they had family support, and it meant they could enjoy their free time. However, she knew she was working to develop and invest in her long-term career. When she finally returned from the 2012 London Olympics, she was already ahead and able to get more value from work.
“Had I not persevered, I would have started at zero at the end of my professional athletic career and after so many years of study,” she says.
Werner agrees, stating that working in business has given her the ability to apply her skills differently.
“My whole life, I’ve identified as an athlete. To be able to kick goals in other areas of your life, where your skills are celebrated differently, have encouraged a different perspective. I’m a professional athlete – but that’s not who I am as a whole person,” Werner says.
“When I finally do retire from competitive sport, I won’t be stuck in oblivion . . . I’ll have a promising career that I’m able to pursue.”
Minerva acknowledges and thanks the many contributors to this series: Lisa Cedres (author), Arthur Stanley/VenuesLive (editor), Kate Argent (Minerva Network) along with our interviewees Sarah Kruger, Jane Waldburger, Ashleigh Werner and Kate Aitken.
Note: This series is not an advertisement or endorsement for Aurecon, Accenture or Optus. These companies however are avid supporters of Minerva Network and Australian elite female athletes achieving their best in all aspects of life.