Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash
Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash

What happens with our future work patterns? Actually no-one really knows yet. Ahead of workplaces event Back to My Happy Healthy Offices on 25 May, Amanda Woodard canvasses some of the possibilities.

Enforced, remote working during COVID-19 has meant a chance to reflect on where we go from here. 

Commentators’ polarised reactions from “work will never be the same again” to “things will gradually revert to the way they were before the pandemic”, betray the fact that as yet, nobody really knows. 

But between optimism and cynicism, lies hope. Hope that our working hours will be happier because – as any survey you care to look at prior to the pandemic shows – for way too many people work equals boredom/ frustration/ stress/ exhaustion. Choose your adjective.

So, has enforced remote working alleviated some of those negative experiences? 

Ingrid Messner, an international leadership coach and author, says the demand for work flexibility was already here before COVID-19 but what the pandemic has done is to normalise it.

“Many CBD office workers have started to enjoy the extra time at home that they saved from not having to travel or dress up. To come back, they ask for extra flexibility to decide when to work from the office or from home. They want the best of both worlds,” she says.

How your staff thinks and feels is key to what your business can achieve – From The Green List

For remote working to work, first and foremost the technology has to be effective. One recent study shows that Australian companies have, on average, increased their take up of some key digital technologies during the pandemic by as much as the previous 10 years. 

But in terms of whether productivity has been affected by this modernisation, the jury is still out. 

In a survey conducted in September 2020, a quarter of Australian businesses said that their productivity dropped during COVID-19 while the same number found that productivity had improved. It suggests technology alone without oversight and good people management varies a great deal from company to company. 

Sharp divisions also exist among businesses about remote and hybrid working. Take financial institutions where, for example, HSBC has said it intends to make savings from staff working remotely by cutting its property footprint around the world by as much as 40 per cent in the long term. Whereas Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon has described working from home as an “aberration” that must be rectified “as soon as possible”. 

Other business leaders are identifying this moment as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine everything about how we do our jobs to how we run our companies. Stewart Butterfield, CEO and co-founder of Slack, the online communication hub, is one of them.  

“People are making new choices about where they want to live and creating new expectations about flexibility, working conditions and life balance that can’t be undone,” he told the BBC. Slack’s Future Forum research of 4700 knowledge workers found the majority never want to return to the old way of working. Only 12 per cent want to go back to full-time office work, and 72 per cent want a hybrid remote-office model.

Only the lonely

Of course, a business that relies on people working remotely would be keen to promote that view. As time goes on, however, psychologists are reporting on the human need for face-to-face contact and collaboration. Robin Dunbar, Professor of Experimental Psychology at University of Oxford, says that the past two decades have witnessed “a loneliness epidemic among the 20-something age group” which the pandemic has only exacerbated. He says for new graduates working in an unfamiliar city in their first job, work is the only place they can meet new people and form friendships.

More generally, Dunbar says that virtual communication can’t replicate the trust that comes with being in close contact with people. “Face-to-face is necessary for that, it seems. There is something very special about being able to see the whites of their eyes across the table, to reach out and touch them, that no digital media can yet match,” he told CNN.

The Big Four hire some people to work in a pyramid model which means only some can succeed because that is the model. You get there by being more available, more hard working, more compliant. It’s easier to do that sitting next to the boss than at home.”

Jon Williams, fifth frame

The impact on people’s mental health has been particularly acute during COVID-19. 

Mathew Paine, an HR senior executive with more than 20 years experience who currently works at NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, says that with so many people working from home full time over the last six months, the grey area between professional and personal life has been blurred like never before, and some employees have been working longer hours than normal. 

“Mental health is and continues to be a topic of focus. It has been widely reported by the Australian Human Resources Institute that anxiety, depression, stress, and loneliness during COVID-19 are more common than ever. In addition to this, Microsoft researchers who analysed the brain waves of participants in video meetings discovered neurological activity associated with stress and overwork after just two hours,” says Paine.

Employer obligations in relation to Work Health Safety remain the same despite the hybrid-working model and the challenge for those in HR is to ensure that managers are skilled communicators and on top of how employees are coping through regular check-ins that aren’t simply about tasks. Engaging with people on a human level becomes more important than ever, says Paine.

Together Again

Jon Williams, who worked as a partner leading People and Organisation at PwC for more than 10 years and now runs his own management consultancy business, Fifth Frame, says among clients he is finding “a desperate need to be together”. 

“Remote working is fine for certain things: Zoom is good for a half hour tactical conversation and moving projects along. But now there is a swing of the pendulum towards wanting to spend time building quality relationships, having long, deeper conversations over a lunch or coffee,” he says.

And what people want to talk about has been affected by the pandemic, too, says Williams. “It is absolutely about purpose and vision which has been left to drift in the tactical day to day. Why do we exist? What are we trying to achieve? How has that changed [if indeed it has] as a result of the pandemic? Feedback suggests that people are returning to work a little bit kinder, a little bit more generous.”

Whether the feel-good vibe will last, Williams has his doubts. “Human nature will out,” he believes. He is also sceptical about the idea that hordes of people are making lifestyle changes, moving away from the big metropolitan centres to work remotely in rural and regional Australia.

“In many organisations, work is an internally competitive endeavour. You are up against your colleagues for pay and promotion. The Big Four hire some people to work in a pyramid model which means only some can succeed because that is the model. You get there by being more available, more hard working, more compliant. It’s easier to do that sitting next to the boss than at home,” says Williams. 

If a business wants to change that way of progressing up through the ranks, then they have to be very explicit about expectations and KPIs, he says.

“I expect that the old rules will continue to apply and people will find themselves pulled back to the office – perhaps not working as inflexibly as before, but not far off.”

Another cautionary thing to bear in mind, says Williams, is that if you are able to do your job in Mudgee, the argument could follow that your job could be done in Mumbai, only a lot more cheaply.

Gender parity

On a positive note, Williams says that everyone working from home “created a more level playing field”. Chief economist at Linkedin Karin Kimbrough calls it “a democratisation of opportunity” with companies able to source diverse talent more easily, especially from groups that are underrepresented in their area. 

Other voices have added that it could increase gender equity in the workforce as research shows that remote working benefits mothers who are more able to balance work and caring responsibilities. And data collected in Australia during the pandemic shows that fathers took on a more participatory role in child care.

As we move from reflection of the past 12 months to reaction, the next year will surely determine whether these workplace trends are here to stay.

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