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Out of office: Australia’s bosses come to grips with the workplace revolution

The days of working five days a week at the office in a suit and tie are over for Greg Goodman, the boss of one of Australia’s top 20 listed companies and the nation’s biggest industrial landlord.

Like most people in Sydney and now Melbourne, Goodman worked from home this week during a hard lockdown designed to stifle a COVID outbreak that has yet again upended his, and many others’, professional lives.

It has been a frustrating experience for most, but for Goodman the COVID-19 induced turmoil of the past year has had at least one silver lining: it has given rise to a radical change in how we work. Companies are coming to grips with the new future of hybrid working and its associated intricacies, wrestling with a shift experts believe is permanent.

Greg Goodman will be ditching the suit and tie as well as the office.

Greg Goodman will be ditching the suit and tie as well as the office.Credit:: Dominic Lorrimer

“Are you a company that’s going to embrace the change, or are you a company that resists change?” Goodman asks. “This has been an opportunity to sit back and say how can we make something of this difficult situation. We can be more productive, we can give back some work-life balance. It will make our business more profitable in the future”.

As the pandemic unfolded through the beginning of 2020, working from home became a necessity for the millions of Australians in office jobs and similar roles. Like many COVID consequences at that time, workers and employers alike thought it would be a transient thing, that office camaraderie would be back in full force by June, maybe July.

However, as lockdowns and outbreaks continued to occur, it became quickly apparent this new way of working was here to stay. ‘Hybrid’ and ‘flexibility’ were inducted into the dictionary of corporate jargon as managers started to confront a workforce that didn’t want to go back to the way things were.

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A survey of Australia’s top 50 companies, conducted by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald this week revealed that not a single company in the sample expects staff to come back into the office five days a week, and just six companies intend to mandate a certain number of office hours each week.

All of them said they would be committed to hybrid working, in some form or other, even after COVID restrictions disappear. It would appear that the five-day office week is well and truly dead – at least for now.

Bosses ‘crossing fingers’ for return to normal

Despite the overwhelming support from the workforce to maintain a flexible model of working, there’s likely a number of companies hoping the whole thing might blow over in a few years, says Dr Ben Hamer, future of work lead at consulting giant PwC.

“It’s not palatable for them to come out and say it, but a lot of organisations and senior leaders will have their fingers crossed that in a couple of years it’ll be all over and done with and we’ll go five days a week back to the office,” he says.

“There’s a number of organisations who are advocating for a return to the office despite hearing loud and clear from their employees that they want to work remotely”

Dr Ben Hamer, future of work lead at PwC

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This is causing concern among workers, many of whom have begun to make major life decisions – such as move to the country – based on the new opportunity for flexible work. However, Dr Hamer believes a full five-day office week is unlikely to return in force, though he admits some turning up to the office will likely be required.

“In reality, what we’ll see is a new normal where we do have about three days a week in the office. There will be less of an expectation to be in the office five days a week, but I don’t think it will necessarily be as fluid with as much of the control in the court of the employee as it is now.”

Dr Hamer says that right now in Australia, workers have more power than perhaps ever before, but notes that an “expectation gap” is emerging between workers who want to keep working from home and managers keen for a return to the office.

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“There’s a number of organisations who are advocating for a return to the office despite hearing loud and clear from their employees that they want to work remotely,” he says.

“Those organisations are then mandating workers being in the office on certain days each week, or saying that you have to come back five days a week, and employees are revolting. If you give workers that flexibility … you can’t now just take that away from them.”

Katie Hodgson, the chief people officer at Penfolds producer Treasury Wine Estates, agrees that some companies may want to switch back to the way things were once COVID becomes a distant memory. But this would be a mistake.

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“That would be a missed opportunity,” she says. “It would be very hard to move back from what we have now, and I think companies would do that at their own peril.”

Instead, companies such as Treasury are taking a long-term view on how to set up their businesses for a permanent shift to hybrid work. Among the short-term decisions made in response to dealing with COVID outbreaks and lockdowns such as Sydney’s current predicament, Hodgson says she and her team are working out how it all plays out in the long run.

Katie Hodgson from Treasury Wines says forcing people back to work would be a mistake.

Katie Hodgson from Treasury Wines says forcing people back to work would be a mistake.

This includes thinking about what skills workers will need, how our ways of working will change, what roles may or may not exist, and what jobs might be done by machines, rather than people.

“What we’re trying to do now … is to start to build the skills for that future of work,” she says.

“That’s around how do you continue to motivate and inspire people when we’ve got a mixture of people working remotely as well as in the office? How do you continue to bring people together and create that sense of belonging?”

Dr Hamer says this will require a significant rewiring from both a management and industrial relations point of view. Companies will need to be cognizant of when and how their employees are working to ensure they are paying in line with modern awards. Performance management will need to be focused on outcomes, rather than outputs, as managers will no longer be able to have constant oversight of their employees as they work.

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Home office hardware. Who pays?

Equipping workers to operate from home also requires some practical tweaks. Some firms are putting time and money into reinvigorating offices and equipping staff to work from home.

“If you force people into the office five days a week, you will lose them.”

Sarah Zerella, principal at Unispace

Goodman supplies its staff with wireless technology, laptops, keyboards, headsets and software upgrades that allow them to be used anywhere. It gives employees a $500 allowance for home office set-up and throws in an ergonomic check-up to boot. The firm also puts on virtual exercise classes – yoga, meditation, pilates – during lockdowns.

Sarah Zerella, a principal at design and workplace strategy firm Unispace, says flexible work arrangements require organisations to trust their employees “at a higher level”.

But, while placing trust in staff provides positive benefits for well being, work-life balance and autonomy, a distributed workforce can impact learning and development, staff attraction and retention, and employee’s experience of the organisation, she says.

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Colliers Australia’s workplace management services head James Armstrong believes the fight for talent among firms has never been more important. “The long-term cultural fit has to remain at the forefront of recruitment in this tight market,” he says.

A gradual loss of workplace culture is unfolding as work from home takes root, he believes. “People are turning up for work on their first day and their managers and team work from home. They are sent new equipment and their first day experience is at home.”

The other downside of the extended lockdowns and enforced work-from-home is that it creates sub-cultures or silos among staff. “The knowledge sharing and transfer is actually narrower when people can’t communicate in person or overhear what others are doing,” Zeralla says.

“The problem is ensuring that people are connected to one another and the organisation,” she says. But staff should be encouraged back into office by “motivation and purpose and not through force or fear.”

“If you force people into the office five days a week, you will lose them.”

Hybrid work favours older, established staff with larger homes and more space. “For younger employees in apartments or shared living, having physical space is a bit more tricky,” Zerella says. Nevertheless they value the autonomy and say remote working is “highly desired.”

Office design is changing as a result. Workstations are being removed and replaced by space that supports communal, collaborative and engaging activities. “It’s about coming into the office for a reason and not just because it’s a Monday,” Zerella says.

The move away from offices also raises tricky questions about employers’ responsibilities and is prompting some big corporations to shift jobs out of expensive city offices to relatively cheaper regional locations.

UNSW emeritus professor Michael Quinlan said if the home becomes a workplace, employers have responsibilities under occupational health and safety laws around working environments, safe plant and equipment, and safe systems of work.

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“This would also apply to contractors in certain circumstances. The real issue is monitoring and enforcement of these conditions as inspectorates don’t normally visit homes,” he says.

Employees injured while working at home would also be considered to have had a workplace accident, he says.

“The pandemic has opened up opportunities for us to rethink how some traditional roles are done,” says NAB chief operating officer Les Matheson.

That includes rethinking where workers are based.

“We want to make sure we are serving customers well whether that’s digitally, by phone, video conference or in-person. We’re adding more than 280 remote working roles around the country and these are providing more opportunities for people in regional areas such as Victor Harbor, Goolwa and Wee Waa,” he says.

The bank’s new office buildings in Sydney and Melbourne will feature modern facilities for future collaborative working. “These new buildings have been carefully considered to help foster increased collaboration and bring out the best in people when they’re in the office,” he says.

The office of the future is already changing, says office landlord Investa’s group executive Michael Cook.

“Already we are seeing designers responding to a new world tenant requirements and expectations have changed, and this latest interruption will magnify these changes. There is no turning back.”

Meeting spaces are the now the focus, either as one person Zoom-rooms or flexible multi-purpose spaces, he maintains. “If the principal purpose of the office is collaboration then the space allocated for collaboration spaces must increase in size and prominence.”

Telstra’s Alex Badenoch group executive of transformation, communications and people describes the changes as a “philosophical shift”.

“When the world gets disrupted you have a choice to make: do you look at how you can ‘go back’ or do you actually start to imagine a new way forward? There’s an opportunity for employers to look forward and create a completely different vision of the workplace rather than try to hold on to the past.”

With Carolyn Cummins, Zoe Samios and Clancy Yeates.

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