Many Australians are now used to working from home after 18 months of lockdowns and restrictions imposed by the COVID pandemic.
A recent Families in Australia survey conducted by the Federal Government found that, of employed Australians, “67 per cent were sometimes or always working from home, compared to 42 per cent pre-COVID”.
With restrictions now easing across the country, employers are starting to grapple with the question of whether to ask their employees to return to the office, particularly as anecdotal evidence suggests many of these workers are reluctant to return to the daily commute on a full-time basis.
To get a corporate perspective on this dilemma, we recently spoke with HR expert Justine Knight, head of Diversity, Inclusion & Well Being at ASX-listed property business The GPT Group.
Shift in Perception
As Knight explains, there has been a shift in how companies perceive their employees working from home, almost entirely due to the pandemic.
“COVID has accelerated the conversation around, and accessibility to the hybrid working model,” she said.
The hybrid working model - where employees spend part of their week in the office and the rest of their time working from home - is something we touched on in an earlier article, and it seems to be the default solution in the early days of the post-lockdown era, particularly in the white-collar employment market.
Yet this hybrid model would unlikely to be just a short-term fix, Knight said.
Employees are now comfortable with the idea of working from home and many are reluctant to give it up completely.
Indeed, Knight said, corporate Australia would need to adapt their working-from-home policies to accommodate this shift in preference, if they wished to attract and retain the best talent.
“Any business that thinks it can just ‘elastic band’ back to how things were pre-pandemic will struggle to attract the top talent,” she said.
With many large corporates such as Microsoft and Google (both of whom have presences in the Australian employment market) now offering their staff the option of working from home permanently, it could be that the next ‘war for talent’ is fought on the ability to offer the most accommodating working practises rather than who can pay the biggest salaries.
A New Type of Office
Working on the assumption that not everyone would be in the office everyday as they may have been previously, would the function of the office change?
Being a property company, Knight’s employer took a keen interest in this question, and her views on this were insightful.
In her opinion, offices would still be part of working life, but the type of work predominantly performed in them would likely change.
“Offices are likely to be transformed, with more collaborative workspaces and fewer individual rows of desks,” she said.
Although this may take a while to shift as companies catch up with the evolving landscape.
The concept of collaboration is key to the hybrid working model, with the idea that people can easily perform individual and focused duties remotely, while still benefiting from coming together with their work colleagues for in-person meetings and for team-based activities in collaborative spaces in the office environment.
Knight was keen to point out that although the technology was in place to conduct even large-scale meetings remotely, many nuances you get in a face-to-face interaction – body language, ability to gauge other people’s reactions etc - were harder on a Zoom call.
One final point is the element of human interaction on the overall well-being of an employee. Knight said this was something she was passionate about in her current role.
Working long periods of time remotely - as has been the case for many of us recently - can be detrimental to an employee’s mental health if not interspersed with face-to-face contact with other people, and if proper boundaries aren’t set around work and down time.
Outside of friends and family, the cohort most likely to fulfil the need for in-person interaction is the people we work with. For this reason alone, it’s likely there will always be a need for communal meeting places within a working environment.
It’s clear the pandemic has shifted the goalposts of the working week and many may never return to the daily commute they experienced pre-COVID.
However, the continuing need and benefits of creating and retaining a strong team culture, along with the natural inclination of employees to seek in-person interactions, will result in the office still being pivotal as part of the workplace of the future.
In addition, hybrid working models are likely to become the norm over the next few years for many in the white-collar sectors.
How companies adapt to this shifting paradigm may well impact on how successful they are at keeping their employees engaged and even on the payroll.