The brave new workplace
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The brave new workplace

Guest blog by National Heart Foundation of Australia Group CEO, Adjunct Professor John G Kelly, AM

COVID-19 has not only changed the way we work, it has changed the way we think about work – and will doubtless shape how we work far into the future. You don’t need a crystal ball to see that.

That said, if I could peer ahead into the coming year or so, I suspect that what I’d find would be in many ways familiar: more rolling lockdowns in pockets or regions across the country; state borders opening and closing at short notice, restrictions coming and going. Which is to say that, for employers and working Australians, 2021 will probably look a fair bit like 2020 – hopefully minus the sort of extended closures we saw in Victoria.

This means many staff will still be working from home, and that businesses and companies will continue to rely on digital technologies to connect within and externally.  Only, instead of a novelty, these practices will, to greater or lesser degrees, have become part of the new normal – whether we like it or not.

But what that new normal means – how it affects our moods, our management styles and our bottom lines in the longer term – is in no sense fixed. It will be powerfully influenced by the actions we take, the attitudes we bring, and the questions we ask now.

As things stand, for staff, as for employers, remote working has been a mixed blessing.

When we surveyed Heart Foundation staff in late 2020, many told us they enjoyed the greater flexibility and autonomy of working from home, with time saved commuting or on public transport now available for exercise, childcare or other activities. Their responses echoed international trends. Inevitably, the shift also has its downsides: isolation, loneliness, feelings of disconnection from colleagues and, sometimes, employers; the blurring of private and public realms, and with it increased risks of burnout for staff who feel that they are effectively on call much of the time.

But overall, surveys of staff working from home here and overseas show a strong appetite to hold onto at least some of those changes.

Of course, employers have their own challenges. Productivity is central. And here again, the picture is mixed. Earlier in the pandemic, the media focus was on increased productivity coinciding with the move to remote working. Today a more nuanced picture is emerging.

Writing in Harvard Business Review late last year, Bain and Co’s Michael Mankins and Eric Garton note some companies have managed the shift to WFH well, harnessing new technologies to stay connected to staff, and increasing productive time by an estimated 5 per cent. But most have struggled, with productive time dropping by 2 to 3 per cent.

In Australia too, the outcomes for employers have been mixed. A study by consultants AlphaBeta found that despite rapid and widespread uptake of new technologies, a quarter of businesses recorded a drop in productivity – the same proportion as reported increases – although, interestingly, those increases went up to 40 per cent for companies that embraced WFH.

But what was striking was that the technology was an important but relatively small part of the story. The study, done in collaboration with Microsoft, found that firms that also introduced practices such as flexible working hours, and new initiatives to increase social connections, update training, and support physical and mental health, were nearly three times as likely to boost their output.

Similarly, Bain and Co’s Mankins and Garton found that the capacity to adjust and stay productive during the pandemic depended in large part on the strength of the company pre-pandemic, in particular its ability to channel the time, energy and talent of its workers.

Again, this means asking new questions, or old questions in new ways.

One of those questions must be, “Are you ok?” Not as a slogan but as a necessity. And not just once. “How are you finding working from home?” “How can we best support you?” The answers might not always be comfortable. But they are important. They also mean following through where necessary with emotional and/or practical support. That might be as simple as scheduling online meetings to avoid school drop off or pick-up times. It might mean offering some form of inhouse or external psychological support. It might mean just listening.

The blurring of public and private space creates its own challenges for employers – and means asking ourselves, and our staff, other questions. How, in this brave new world, do we ensure that flexibility is balanced by accountability? What are the expectations of being an employee in this new paradigm? What indicia might we use to determine that this is happening?

Here’s another question, one that a year ago would have been unimaginable for many: will we ever again have all of our staff working under the same roof at the same time? And if not, how, as an employer or organisation, do we redefine our physical workplaces? How might we design office space differently? Is there an ideal home/ office ratio? Do we even need an office? And what are the alternatives?

Many of these questions are not new. Moves towards remote and more flexible work practices, and questions about the continuing role of bricks and mortar, have been gaining traction for years. But the pandemic has not only brought the conversation into sharp focus, it also presents the opportunity for us to ask how we might do things differently.

The answers to these questions are as individual as the organisations involved. They include empowerment, innovation, leadership, flexibility, accountability – and, critically, shared values.

But beneath all this lies a fundamental dilemma. Without a traditional physical workspace holding us all together, how do we stay connected? How, as individuals, do we maintain the human contact that allows trust to grow and relationships to flourish? And how, as a workplace, do we activate the synergies that arise from face-to-face contact, boosting creativity, enhancing learning, and sustaining organisational memory and culture? How do we foster a sense of “us” rather than just “me”?

We will be asking this question and thinking through the answers for some time.

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