Back to office vs Work from home
What is the right balance of working from home and the office as we come out the other side of COVID-19?
At the end of this extraordinary year, I feel it is better to look forward not back. Fortunately, there is renewed optimism going into 2021. Australia is officially out of a technical recession, Melbourne is out of lock down, all borders except South Australia are open and the new health guidelines in NSW from 1st December open the door to help people get back to their workplaces and reconnect safely.
However, given the clear economic and social challenges ahead it will be interesting to see how businesses respond to creating the work environment of the future. Work from home is dominating the discussion as the new work life solution, but is it the answer? The reduced office space, cost reductions and work life balance may be a compelling business case. But should we be concerned the work from home cost savings will be locked in without understanding the true long-term costs of doing so?
Organisations today face an unprecedented level of uncertainty and many should be genuinely proud of how they’ve worked through COVID – from reacting to the initial impact and then recovering as fast as possible. I believe the time is right to move from reaction and recovery to revitalising. As we move out of lockdowns and imposed restrictions, leaders have a unique opportunity to rethink the future workforce and make deliberate choices that are fit for purpose for its people, its customers and the bottom line.
"I believe the time is right to move from reaction and recovery to revitalising."
Organisations that don’t get the right balance with work from home and a vibrant face to face work environment risk disengaging their most valuable asset at a time when it has never been more important: their people and culture.
There are significant positives with working from home but the following three topics require thought and a deliberate approach to optimise the benefits of our new world and new way of working:
1. People feeling increasingly disconnected, increasing mental health issues
We are all social beings and need to feel connected and part of a community. We all need to belong to a tribe and going to the office provided a sense of that for many of us. The challenge is that the pandemic brought to the fore an even stronger human need – safety.
As restrictions start to ease, safety needs to remain the number one priority and I’m a strong believer that many temporary measures are becoming permanent habits. A significant number of Australians do not feel safe coming to work despite health guidelines and restrictions easing. Work environments, common areas, office hygiene, social distancing, sick leave and meeting protocols all need to evolve.
“We all need to belong to a tribe”
We can never forget that the best performing organisations that exceed profit, customer service and growth expectations have highly engaged staff. This is achieved by strong alignment to purpose, culture, personal development and leadership opportunities cultivated by their organisation. Businesses that create a compelling new world for their employees will retain and attract the best talent in the future. And in my view now is not the time to lead this change solely from behind a PC camera, posts or email.
“Now is not the time to lead change solely from behind a PC camera, posts or emails”
Apart from the well discussed challenges of remote working and using video conferencing, I have also been reflecting on the impact on people’s personal development, which is a key motivator at work. In business, I believe people learn from observing role models, their peers, their network. I always have and will continue to do so. What happens to all of this in a remote working culture? Yes, some staff are coming into the office, but due to lack of strategy many are finding it lonelier or no different to working from home still tied to video conferences.
A poorly executed work from home strategy can unfortunately lead to further challenges with mental health caused by inability to disconnect from work, missing out on opportunities to connect and the sense of belonging to a tribe with purpose, personal development, support and learning.
2. The impact on small businesses in the CBD and the flow on effect on big businesses
The other impact of continuing to adopt a remote workforce strategy is the impact on the CBD. In Melbourne, The Age has recently reported that 28% of city businesses have shut their doors and half of those premises are now vacant. Across the CBD, an estimated 2,000 businesses are either closed or empty, leaving thousands out of work.
The Melbourne City Council estimates the number of workers, visitors and tourists entering the CBD in 2021 will fall by 38%, even after Premier Daniel Andrews' announcement last weekend that 25% of workers could return to offices.
Sydney and the other CBDs across Australia have similar challenges. And while Melbourne has only just come out of lockdown, the Sydney CBD is a shadow of its former self with many small businesses closed and many organisations only targeting 10-30% of the workforce returning anytime soon. You only need to see the vacant cafes, closed restaurants and ghostly quiet building foyers and malls to see the full impact of working from home.
Ironically, the cost of small businesses failing due to lack of people in our CBDs has a flow on effect on some of our largest CBD employers like insurers and banks who protect and lend money to these small businesses. Banks and insurance companies are already having to factor in these liabilities in their bad loans and claims forecasts. And yet it is their staff that used to fill these businesses as eager customers in the morning at coffee shops, at lunch in cafes and in the evenings at restaurants and bars.
“It starts to feel like a dangerous downward spiral”
3. The impact on business creativity and innovation
Finally, I also believe that the interaction in the workplace drives creativity and innovation. Virtual conferences and meetings can be an effective platform for leading and managing many things, but is challenging in less structured, brainstorming and ideation sessions. Teaming, workshops and co-creation will always be less personal via a PC screen.
The concept of building strong teams has been described as forming, storming and norming. I have talked to many people who have started a new job or recruited a new team member, but have never met in person. Often you need to create a safe, intimate and innovative environment to get the best out of people’s EQ and IQ.
What can we do about it?
Australia is famous for its optimism and can-do attitude. We are the lucky country when it comes to many things including how our Government and leaders responded to COVID-19. Australian business leaders now have an opportunity to show exceptional leadership, spirit, innovation and work collaboratively with Government, health services and their teams to restore the balance between working at home and coming into the office. Balance is the key word.
“Balance is the key word”
The world has changed and the improvement in work life balance has been a silver lining of COVID-19. I will always be grateful for the new time I now have with family and friends, the strong local community and appreciation for what is important. However, leaders need to create a clear case for why returning to the workplace is also important and not lose sight of the historical social connections that have created great businesses and talent in the past. So much so, that we took for granted networking with colleagues, learning from each other, building social skills, influencing outcomes, having our voice heard and seen.
Organisations need a clear strategy and proposition on the benefits of returning to the office, because travelling into the office is no longer an expectation but seen as discretionary choice by so many people. What was temporarily mandated for health reasons has now become a habit and is the norm. The idea of the travel time and costs, public transport, business attire and crowded lifts is not an attraction policy. Health and safety needs must come first, but many people will need to understand what’s it in it for them to return the office.
The rational case is an economic one: that remote working will kill the CBD, the beating heart of the economy and in turn many small businesses and our physical workplace. This just threatens more jobs, not only in small business, but through their symbiotic relationship also the organisations that support them. Hard to see an economic recovery without our vibrant cites and a life run by video conferencing.
However, a more positive message are the benefits of reviving work place social connection and restoring personal development opportunities. Why not have the best of both worlds? Technology can’t replace the conversation at the water cooler, the impromptu drink after work with a colleague from another department or bumping into a new face in the corridor. Equally, businesses can’t just mandate a return to the office. Our lives have changed forever and as a result, leaders must lead both virtually and in person to consciously create the work environment of the future.
“Leaders must lead both virtually and in person to consciously create the work environment of the future”
It’s a joint effort
It’s not just up to leaders of organisations. To truly reinvigorate Australia we need strong collaboration between corporate Australia and government whose role is more than setting guidelines and providing health warnings. The Sydney summit in October was a good start and we understand there are some further state government led initiatives on this subject in the pipeline for the new year, especially when the next round of restrictions are announced.
Business leaders need to influence the future design of large business centres like the CBD. Reimagining the CBD as a destination for the arts, entertainment, dining, retail experiences and social work connections would see our cities and businesses thrive.
The whole is greater than the parts.
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