Various: Working from home

SMH EDITORIAL 14 Dec: The shift to working from home can outlast COVID-19

Crises often accelerate change in workplaces: during World War I, women for the first time filled factory jobs vacated by men.

The next few months could decide whether the COVID-19 pandemic has a similar long-term impact on the experience of working in an office. For the past eight months, office life has been transformed as – in the interest of social distancing – millions were told to work from home.

The shift to remote working is surprisingly widespread. The percentage of people who work from home has of course climbed in tech-savvy sectors such as IT and finance. But it has risen significantly in some old economy sectors too. In construction, for instance, the share of work-from-home workers jumped from 15 per cent pre-COVID to 34 per cent in September, according to Fair Work Australia.

Bosses will now have the option of ordering staff back to the office.

At one level, this is good news because it can only happen thanks to Australia’s success in all but eliminating the virus. It is now safe to go back to the office.

By contrast in the US, big companies such as Amazon and Apple tried to get workers back into the office after the first round of lockdowns but then extended their work-from-home rules as the pandemic continued to spread.

Yet the return to the pre-COVID status quo also poses problems because, as the Herald has reported, some Australian employers are more enthusiastic about returning to the old work arrangements than their workers, who have enjoyed the flexibility and the time saved from the daily commute.

A Boston Consulting Group study of large companies found that employers believe only 40 per cent of workers should be allowed to not come into the office, while a separate BCG study earlier this year found that 63 per cent of employees want a hybrid model where they work from home part of the time. Some employers seem to think that having workers under one roof increases productivity and helps build a sense of teamwork. Older workers can mentor younger colleagues and the chat around the water-cooler can generate great ideas. Perhaps some also believe it is important to clock the hours of facetime their employees put in.

Yet employers should reflect on the possibility that things have changed permanently and try to show some flexibility for their employees.

Many workplaces that were hesitant to allow work from home a year ago have now experienced it first hand. They have made the investment in new technology and management techniques and know-how to make it work.

While it might be a bit harder to manage some staff, there are benefits. Companies can save significantly on the cost of office space and there is evidence that allowing working from home cuts the number of sick days.

Some adaptation might be necessary. For instance, it might be necessary to order staff into the workplace on specific days for specific reasons, such as brainstorming sessions or training.

The long-term impact is still unclear. Some office workers who have suffered through excruciating meetings on Zoom – interrupted by bad home Wi-Fi and children – will rush back to the office.

Many workers may drift back more slowly. Yahoo abandoned a shift to working from home in 2013 because it discovered some workers got lonely and wanted to hang out with their colleagues.

Rather than clinging to the old stereotypes, however, smart employers should listen to the employees who want some of the COVID-19 changes to be permanent.

SMH: Catalyst for change: How the pandemic changed the way we live and work

https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/catalyst-for-change-how-the-pandemic-changed-the-way-we-live-and-work-20201203-p56k8b.html?btis

ABC: Coronavirus work from home orders lifted today in New South Wales

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-14/sydney-news-nsw-coronavirus-work-from-home-orders-lifted-today/12979148

SMH: Bosses and employees divided over working from home rules (lots of graphs)

https://www.smh.com.au/business/workplace/bosses-and-employees-divided-over-working-from-home-rules-20201130-p56j3m.html

An expectations gap is opening between bosses and staff over the future of remote work as major companies say only 40 per cent of employees will be able to operate from home in future.

The NSW public health order requiring employers to allow people to work from home will be repealed on Monday but bosses are grappling with the post-pandemic balance between home and office-based work.

The order coincides with a report of some of Australia’s largest organisations that found while almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of employees want a hybrid model that involves some working from home and some days in the office, employers say it will only be available to about 40 per cent of staff.

The Boston Consulting Group report said there was a “clear expectation gap between employee desires and the working models envisaged by their employers”.

Employers think one-third of their staff who can work remotely will be back in the office full-time, but only 15 per cent of employees want this to happen.

“I think that will create tension. The tension is going to come in how organisations are able to both attract and retain talent,” BCG managing director and partner Chris Mattey said.

“If you have an organisation that is demanding people come in five days a week and employees want some degree of flexibility, they are going to start selecting organisations that are going to offer that.”

Workplace researchers also warn it has become more difficult for managers to treat staff equally when some are working from home while others are in the office.

Swinburne University of Technology researcher John Hopkins said it would be easier to manage staff if they all worked the same way.

“It is more of a challenge to do a hybrid workforce, this blended working model. But that is what the demand is for,” he said.

Years before the pandemic, Adriana Care helped staff in her law firm work from home. She is calling some of them back to provide younger lawyers with adequate supervision having downsized her Sydney CBD and Parramatta offices into suburban locations.

“Your junior staff really need that mentoring … to ensure they are not being left behind,” she said.

Ms Care said the pandemic legitimised the flexible work practices she had already introduced.

“What I thought would take another five to six years happened in six months,” she said.

The study found nearly half of the 120 Australian companies it surveyed in September and October expect to reduce real estate space. It showed 42 per cent of organisations plan to have a bulk of their workforce back in the office by Christmas, with a further 30 per cent shortly after. Another 20 per cent were waiting until the pandemic is contained and/or a vaccine becomes available. About half would consider “employee willingness” to return among major factors when deciding on coming back.

The research included interviews with senior executives from more than 40 of the largest Australian companies and found increased division between workplaces that were embracing flexible working models and those that were keen to “get back to how things were”.

In their report to the Fair Work Commission on working from home trends, Dr Hopkins and his colleague Professor Anne Bardoel found that while nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) of workers did not work from home on a regular basis before the pandemic, only 10 per cent believe they will not work from home again.

More than three-quarters of managers (77 per cent) believed their staff will work from home more in the future than they did before the pandemic.

“But the challenge then is how do you manage people who are working at home and at the same time people who are working in the office and it’s about creating that level playing field,” Dr Hopkins said.

study by the consultancy AlphaBeta, a part of Accenture, found one-in-four businesses had a drop in productivity when working from home during the pandemic. Productivity was about the same for half of businesses during that period, while 25 per cent said it had improved.

“While the introduction of new technologies supported resilience in COVID, there is a recognition that these tools are not unambiguously positive and can have some negative effects on productivity and wellbeing,” the report said.

Economist Terry Rawnsley says survey evidence among workers shows a minority have a strong preference either for or against remote work, most employees “are in the middle and could go either way.”

When it comes to productivity, the results were mixed. The Swinburne research found around one-third (34.5 per cent) felt they were more productive when working from home, but a similar proportion (30 per cent) felt they were less productive. The remaining third (36 per cent) believed their productivity level had not changed.

The report also found a mismatch between organisations viewing the office as a place to work and employees seeing it as a meeting point for collaboration and social connection.

“I think there is going to be quite a big rethink about what the role of the office is and what the set up is rather than just opening the doors again and having everyone come back,” Mr Mattey said.

Alex McCauley, chief executive officer of StartupAus, joined seven friends to set up their own small office hub in a rented space in Darlinghurst. They wanted it to be “more than an office”.

Mr McCauley was working in a crowded co-working space before the pandemic and his friends with young children didn’t have space at home. The co-working space he had used in the city was “tightly packed and densely populated, which in a COVID environment isn’t great”.

BCG TIPS FOR MANAGING THE HYBRID WORKPLACE

1. Find a way to make hybrid models work for your organisation, recognising that this comes with many challenges. The division of organisations into those going ‘back to the old ways’ of five days a week in the office, versus those embracing new ways of working will have profound impacts on a company’s success at attracting and retaining talent.

2. Careful and tailored internal messaging will be key. Employers need to ensure there is no division between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in terms of flexible working models.

3. Employers must manage for mental health. There is little excuse for companies not to invest in programs that support mental wellbeing.

4. Businesses should double-down on activating teams. Getting the individuals within a team to agree to their own way of working is the unlock that will enable the right trade-offs to be made at a practical level between business outcomes and individual outcomes.

6. Listen to your people and try not to force them back to the office: Understanding the pulse of your organisation will help you to modify policies and communications that will benefit everyone.

7. Businesses need to reimagine their office space. This must mirror what employees find valuable about being in the office, and design for accidental collisions to aid social interaction.

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