As businesses return to the office after the omicron wave, it’s becoming clear that we have a flexible working problem emerging across Australia. Workers increasingly expect that flexible working will become their new normal and gradually more employers are recognising this. Yet flexible working is at risk of not working the way it should for either worker or employer. Let’s unpack the challenges on both sides. First, let’s look at workers.
In research by the Centre for the New Workforce (CNeW) published in December, almost three in five workers (57.8 per cent) expected flexible working – working remotely or in a hybrid setting. Around a third of workers (32.2 per cent) preferred the office as their ideal workplace. But most of those ‘office-based’ workers also want some ability to work remotely each week. In other words, almost all workers want flexible arrangements.
Wanting to work flexibly is a strong indicator of a desire for better work-life balance. Indeed, our research on hybrid working found that flexible workers had the best work-life balance, whereas those who work primarily in the office had the poorest.
Data reported in ELMO’s quarterly Employee Sentiment Index helps explain the demand for working flexibly. In the fourth quarter of 2021, almost half of Australian workers (45 per cent) reported suffering burnout. The leading cause is feeling overwhelmed with workload – the highest level recorded all year.
Working flexibly gives workers more autonomy over when and where they work, allowing them to better manage the balance between work and life. The challenge is to ensure work and life are kept in balance for flexible workers, especially as workloads – and burnout – increase.
For employers, the flexible working problem has at least two dimensions.
First, most employers continue to treat flexible working as a logistical challenge, largely leaving it to workers and their teams to figure out the where and when, and often only providing guidance around the number of days in the office. While workers tend to like this greater autonomy, it is impacting their ability to be effective. Compared to workers who work in a fixed location (only in the office or remotely), flexible workers are the least productive, least able to collaborate with their teams, least connected to their organisation, and least able to take a break, which impacts their physical and mental health. Working across locations as it is currently constituted is too complicated.
Second, the preference for working away from the office is highly concerning – not just because of the underutilisation of expensive space and fit outs. CNeW research shows that the office is indispensable for in-person interactions that support meaningful relationships – essential for every organisation. Even organisations going purely remote need to bring their people together throughout the year.
After two years of effectively working from home, workers are indicating they don’t want to come back to the office. Working in the office is not over but it needs to be repurposed.
With a highly vaccinated population, the expectation from employers around getting their workers back into the office is growing. Organisations face a dilemma. How do they provide workers with better work-life balance through flexible working but not at the expense of productivity and social connections? To succeed, flexible working needs to be less complicated. Hybrid work can achieve this by moving beyond logistics to focus on outcomes; for the first time, we can differentiate work based on what works best where.
We now know that working from home gives individuals and teams the ability to complete routine work and focus on tasks that can easily get interrupted in the office. Recent US research estimates the productivity boost for individuals working from home post-pandemic could be nearly five per cent relative to pre-pandemic.
Coming into the office can’t just be about people working; it must be about people working together in meaningful ways. In-person activities in the office must increasingly prioritise activities around human interaction. From social gatherings and onboarding to forming new teams for major projects and impromptu conversations around a work challenge. The type of work where a diversity of perspectives and expertise is crucial to make sense of ill-defined problem spaces, formulating strategy, or workshopping client briefs is better suited to in-person collaboration.
These in-person activities also foster workplace learning, build trust and empathy, grow social capital, and support a healthy culture. And doing more of the complex and dynamic work in the office will reduce the miscommunication and misunderstanding that often arises when trying to communicate through Zoom meetings and emails.
Done right, work becomes more efficient, helps reduce workload and flexible working is simpler and more sustainable.
In the repurposed office, there will still be individual work and teamwork performed, but this will become secondary. To make workers only come into the office for routine tasks that they have ably demonstrated they can do better remotely will only lead to resentment.
We expect all organisations will eventually become hybrid. Like the metaphor of the frog in gradually boiling water, organisations that fail to differentiate work suited for the office versus at home as part of their workforce strategy may not realise their mistake until it is too late. By putting people first in our office spaces, we have an opportunity to unlock greater human potential and deliver transformational outcomes in a rapidly changing and disruptive world.