Flexibility on Trial

In today’s rapidly changing work environment, where flexibility and work-life balance are commonplace discussion topics, a recent decision by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) brings to the forefront a compelling case between Melbourne Apprentice Group (MAG) and its then operations manager, Katrina Sayce.  

This case not only illuminates the legalities of flexible work arrangements but also touches on the broader conversation about the shifting landscape of employment practices and the delicate interplay between maintaining business operations and supporting employee needs. 

What Happened?

Shaun Jones, the director of MAG, found himself under scrutiny after his refusal to grant Ms Sayce’s request to work from home one day a week during her pregnancy. Ms Sayce’s request was driven by her struggle with persistent pregnancy nausea, which made commuting and working in an open office environment a challenge. However, Mr Jones’s stance was clear: “I don’t pay people to work at home,” he allegedly said, suggesting instead that Ms Sayce could either reduce her hours or use her sick leave. 

Ms Sayce then took sick leave for a month before resigning with 11 weeks gardening leave. She filed a claim for unfair dismissal, alleging MAG’s refusal of her request, as well as their treatment of her while was pregnant, meant she was left with no option but to resign.  

Mr. Jones explained to the FWC that his company was unable to accommodate her request to work from home due to the nature of her role, which necessitated in-person training and collaboration with internal consultants. He highlighted that her responsibilities did not involve tasks that could be performed via computer alone but rather required her physical presence to fulfil her job requirements. 

He further said that, given the size of his business, it was impractical to send employees to her home for training purposes, and it was not standard practice for any of his staff to work from home regularly. 

Adding context to the company’s stance on remote work, it was mentioned that another manager at MAG had previously denied Ms. Sayce’s request a year ago to work from home for a week during school holidays to look after her children. She was informed that remote work was neither a current nor future option for the company, with a suggestion to consider a consultant role that would offer more flexibility. 

What Did the FWC Say? 

Though this refusal might be considered by some as “uncaring and inflexible,” it was aligned with MAG’s in-person communication policy. The commission, led by Commissioner Nick Wilson, delved into the nuances of the situation, concluding that while Jones’s decision lacked compassion, it was not wrongful per se. It reflected the business’s policy, which prioritized in-person interaction over remote work flexibility. 

“While there could and should have been rational discussion and consideration of the subject by Mr Jones, his refusal is unable to be characterised as being intended to bring the employment relationship to an end or having that probable result.” 

Despite the debate over whether Ms. Sayce’s job could be done from home—a point exaggerated by Mr. Jones—it was clear that the company had communicated its stance on remote work for over a year. 

Commissioner Wilson also observed that whilst the denial of the request technically ‘above board,’ Mr. Jones’ decision lacked insight, which could have repercussions for both him and the company when its full implications are assessed. 

However, when it came to the accusation of unfair dismissal, Commissioner Wilson concluded that the refusal to permit remote work, alongside claims of being marginalised from meetings and having responsibilities reduced prior to maternity leave, did not constitute a scenario where Ms. Sayce was left with no choice but to quit. 

Why is this significant

The case sheds light on a broader issue faced by workers across various sectors who find themselves at a crossroads when their requests for remote work are denied, especially in circumstances where flexibility seems not just a convenience but a necessity. The Fair Work Commission is now pondering over potential adjustments to industry awards to ensure that work from home becomes a part of the safety net, recognising the evolving dynamics of the modern workplace. 

In a narrative that could be seen as a clash between traditional business models and the modern push for flexibility, the commission’s ruling underscores the importance of dialogue and consideration in addressing employee needs. While the decision to uphold MAG’s policy was met with mixed reactions, it also highlights the ongoing debate over workplace flexibility, especially in scenarios involving health concerns and family responsibilities. 

As businesses and employees navigate these turbulent waters, the case of MAG and Katrina Sayce serves as a reminder of the delicate balance that needs to be struck between operational policies and the human element of work. It’s a conversation that, while challenging, is crucial in shaping a work environment that accommodates the diverse needs of the workforce, fostering not just productivity but also well-being. 

Lessons for employers

For employers who are seeking to ensure their employees work from the office on a regular basis there are several lessons which can be taken from this case to ensure that employer preferences are followed.  

Firstly, the existence of a policy stipulating the company’s requirement to work from the office, excluding the option to work from home except in exceptional circumstances will help the employer’s standing in the eyes of the commission relating to an unfair dismissal claim.  

Secondly, this case illustrates that whilst there may be a right to request flexible working arrangements under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), it is only a right to request. There is no statutory presumption that employees can work. This point, coupled with suitable workplace policies should provide the employer with comfort and protection should they wish to enforce a working from the office full-time.  

However, it is important to note that there are far more onerous steps required in considering flexibility requests following legislative changes. Employees can also seek to have a refusal reviewed by the FWC. It is also important to advise against the approach taken by the employer in this case. While the court found in the employer’s favour, they spoke pejoratively how the employer spoke to the employee. Therefore, it is recommended to approach these discussions in a professional and courteous manner. Not only, will this approach improve workplace relations, but it will improve the chances of a favourable finding from the commission.  

In navigating the complex terrain of workplace disputes and flexible working arrangements, Workplace Wizards stands as a beacon of guidance and support for employers. We specialise in offering tailored advice and strategic solutions that align with both legal requirements and company values.  

Thanks to an experienced team of consultants, we’re able to help businesses proactively address potential conflicts by developing clear, fair, and flexible work policies. Our approach is not just about legal compliance but also about fostering a positive work culture that accommodates the evolving needs of employees while ensuring the operational efficiency of the business. By partnering with our firm, employers can confidently navigate the intricacies of modern workplace dynamics, ensuring they are well-equipped to handle disputes with compassion, fairness, and legal foresight, ultimately leading to a more resilient and adaptive organisational structure. 

Call us for a chat to see what we can do for you on (03) 9087 6949 or email us at support@workplacewizards.com.au

You might also be interested in on our blogs on:

Unfair Dismissals

Difficult Conversations

Wellbeing & Productivity 


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