What the Sydney trains debacle has taught us about working in Australia

Earlier this month, Sydney and NSW train drivers voted ‘yes’ to taking industrial action following six months of failed negotiations over an enterprise agreement covering 9,000 workers. The Rail Bus and Tram Union (RBTU) said the planned rail strike was due to management’s refusal to provide workers with certainty around days off and not committing to protect workers’ conditions in the event of privatisation.

Commuters faced chaos last Thursday as rail workers staged an overtime ban and more than 1,000 trains across Sydney were cancelled. Ahead of Monday’s planned full 24-hour strike, the Fair Work Commission ordered rail employees to cancel their strike due to the potential danger it posed to the public and Sydney’s economy. Had the strike gone ahead, it would have cost the state and businesses an estimated $100 million in lost revenue.

Lessons learned: Working flexible hours is vital for employers and staff

So, what can we learn about the Australian workforce from the Sydney Trains strike – the first of its kind in over 100 years? For starters, it’s clear that workplace flexibility is now more crucial than ever. Forward-thinking businesses like ANZ, Westpac and many others encouraged employees to work from home or take a cab on Thursday or Monday with a view to reducing disruption to productivity as much as possible. Those who didn’t allow flexible working conditions would have been hardest hit by lost revenue due to reduced employee working hours and absenteeism.

A recent report from PwC also found that younger workers consider flexible working arrangements – alongside opportunities for progression – to be more important than financial incentives. Australian employers must, therefore, consider adopting flexible working arrangements to not only ensure they can adapt to unforeseen working disruptions but also to attract and retain top talent.

Employee productivity and satisfaction

Similarly, the Sydney Trains experience shows us how seriously productivity and employee satisfaction can be negatively impacted when workers feel their opinions aren’t being heard. A 2015 employee engagement study found that companies that listen to their employees see a sustained uplift in employee engagement and satisfaction compared with companies that don’t. In turn, employees who are more engaged produce higher quality work and are less likely to call in sick or quit.

Of course, employees and employers won’t always see eye to eye when it comes to issues like wage agreements, working schedules and so on. When a dispute does arise, Australian employers should have fair and structured arbitration or dispute resolution processes in place to minimise the risk of decreased productivity, low staff morale and increased staff turnover rates.

Ultimately, the industrial action by Sydney Trains workers reinforces what we already know about working in Australia: organisations must focus on employee satisfaction and embrace new, agile ways of working to retain top employees and remain competitive.

Are you an employer who offers flexibility? Then speak to us about finding top talent who value that. 

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