Workforce | Skills

Collaboration crucial to post-pandemic return to the office

Australian workers are prepared to walk in favour of a flexible job and improved work/life balance, a panel of workplace experts have told a CEDA forum on the future of the office. 

Australian businesses urgently need to reassess their employee value proposition (EVP) as COVID transforms the way we work, PwC’s Future of Work lead, Dr Ben Hamer, has told a CEDA livestream.

Speaking on a panel about the ways COVID has permanently transformed patterns of working, Dr Hamer said 49 per cent of top Australian executives had reported no intention of looking at their EVP.

“That’s a massive red flag and hopefully the dial has shifted a little since then with Omicron.” he said. 

“Turnover is increasing in Australia. Workers are using the current conditions to seek better conditions and better pay and they’re leaving organisations where they may feel burnt out, overworked or undervalued.”

The panel, moderated by CEDA CEO Melinda Cilento and comprised of Dr Hamer, Dr Sean Gallagher (Director of Swinburne’s Centre for the New Workforce), Dr Karina Powers (an occupational and environmental physician from medical network OzSage) and Jeanne 'JC' Townend (CEO of human resources firm LHH’s UK & Ireland branch), were firmly in agreement that flexible working was in strong demand in the wake of the COVID pandemic.

Dr Gallagher told the panel that while his research had shown more than 75 per cent of white-collar workers wanted flexible work, only 10 per cent wanted to exclusively work from home.

Dr Hamer said the EVP of the future was hyper-personalised, allowing workers to choose their own priorities. The top demands his research had revealed were good pay, good people to work with and good work/life balance.

Two in five workers were prepared to walk in favour of a flexible job, Dr Gallagher said.

Despite this, Dr Gallagher said his research had also shown flexible working was the worst of both worlds. 

“These workers were least productive, least able to collaborate, least able to take a break where needed and felt least connected to their organisation.” he said.

The issue, he argued, was that flexible working was too complicated. 

Instead, firms needed to examine the value of the location for different types of working, with individual productivity, task-based, routine work and even team meetings for sharing information being better done out of the office.

Research from the US had suggested this could lead to a five per cent productivity increase for individuals if that work is done remotely. 

Give women, introverts, younger workers space to thrive: Dr Gallagher

Dr Gallagher argued that firms needed to shift their mindsets about the purpose of the office. 

“I think any employer that wants their workers to come back in to sit at a terminal and process emails should be ashamed," he said. 

Dr Gallagher said his research had shown the advantages of the office lay in bringing people together for a complex transfer of information, relationship forming, ideation, complex problem solving and creativity. 

Dr Hamer said research had showed WFH had levelled the playing field, allowing women, introverts and younger workers to thrive in an environment where previously the loudest voices had dominated. 

Dr Gallagher advised against firms going entirely remote, but recommended office space for collaborative work be expanded to roughly equal the space dedicated to individual task-based work. 

He also recommended firms identify “low-hanging fruit”, tasks that could only occur in the office and begin to experiment with task-differentiation between the office and WFH to find a mix that suited both workers and the business itself. 

This would help workers find a balance within their work that was crucial to their effectiveness and work satisfaction. 

Another challenge crucial to navigating the changing workplace was proper investment in middle-manager training, Dr Hamer said.

While recent graduates and senior executives saw significant investment in their skill development, middle managers were expected to simply learn management skills on the job.

Worker surveillance software was the number one selling type of software in the first year of the pandemic, he said, but many issues associated with flexible work, such as concerns over unsupervised employee productivity, were performance management issues, not work from home issues.

Focus on impact, not productivity: Dr Hamer

White-collar firms needed, he said, to shift their thinking away from productivity - a useful metric for factory floors, but not for knowledge workers

Instead, effectiveness and impact were far more useful metrics, Dr Hamer argued.

As the Omicron wave once again forced Australian offices into remote work, it was important not to fall for the fatalistic assumption that infection was inevitable, Dr Powers told the panel. 

“The most useful construct to think about this is an epidemic disease that comes in waves. We can do things to flatten the waves, but we aren’t out of the woods yet.” she said.

With the new school year likely to amplify the wave, firms needed to focus on indoor ventilation to avoid being part of the wave.

CO2 concentrations should be under 800 parts per-million, HEPA filters should be installed, and essential employees should be offered respirators instead of masks, she said.

Rapid antigen tests should also be offered as part of a program, rather than a one-off.

Dr Powers recommended firms carefully follow daily case numbers and hospitalisations to assess the level of COVID risk, remembering that official numbers no longer reliably represented the full dimensions of the outbreak.

Workers knew when employers weren’t taking their health seriously, she said, and this damaged organisational trust.

Dr Powers also recommended that Employee Assistance Programs provide access to clinical psychologists, due to the level of mental health issues being seen in the workforce. 

Reflecting on the United Kingdom’s experience of the pandemic, Ms Townend said there had been huge optimism in July 2021 as the UK’s vaccine rollout neared completion, with many assuming the pandemic to be over. 

This led to some businesses being very strict about pushing employees back into the office.

The emergence of the Delta and Omicron variants dashed hopes of a ‘return to normal’ and showed most firms that the need for change remained. 

“In the UK, we’ve got the full spectrum of opinions from ‘Everyone back in the office; I don’t even trust that you’re working unless I can see you.’ to ‘Everyone can be flexible.’,” Ms Townend said.

She recommended firms provide top-down guidance biased towards protection on how to manage flexible work and prevent igniting the simmering divisions over COVID present across society.