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The best of both worlds

The global shift to a productivity model that splits work between the home and the office is likely to stay around for many years to come.

The best of both worlds
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  • Adrian Flores
  • March 04, 2021
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If there’s one major positive development to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that the world has finally woken up to the fact that a serious review into the way we work and be productive has been long overdue. As the world has changed so much over the past year, the decades old office 9-to-5 model of productivity has until recently been left mostly unchanged, save a few tweaks here and there.

But before the first COVID lockdown in Australia happened in March 2020, organisations had already begun moving their employees to remote working arrangements like working from home to keep them safe and prevent the disease from spreading out of control. As 2020 progressed and it became apparent that the pandemic would not be over by year’s end, at the same time the benefits of working from home also became ever clearer.

An August survey from urban planning firm RobertsDay revealed that 72 per cent pointed to the lack of a commute as a major positive of the arrangement, followed by work/life balance (61 per cent). Further, more than half (57 per cent) of respondents said they loved not having to dress for work, while 36 per cent of respondents enjoyed having fewer distractions in their home office environments most.

Further examination

Such benefits of working from home have led to more serious considerations moving forward of the value of a new hybrid working model – one that aims to tread a fine balance whereby most workers can work remotely some of the time while at the same time gather onsite for collaboration, team building and tasks viewed as “non- remoteable”.

According to The Australian Financial Review’s annual Chanticleer poll of 50 CEOs, most believed the coronavirus crisis has changed the nature of work, even while remaining steadfast in their belief that the office remains vital to collaboration and fostering culture.

Responding to the poll, Telstra chief executive Andrew Penn said staff surveys had indicated the preference was to work from home three days a week, compared with an average of 1.7 days before the pandemic, while NAB chief executive Ross McEwan said more than 80 per cent of the bank’s staff had indicated their preference for a hybrid model.

The hybrid working model is even becoming a research topic of interest to guide government policy. An investigation from the NSW Innovation and Productivity Council (IPC) predicted that while the amount of work done remotely will drop after the pandemic, it will still remain at almost 70 per cent above pre-pandemic levels.

The IPC report noted that only 5 per cent of workers can perform all tasks remotely. On the other hand, around half of all workers can work remotely for at least two days a week.

NSW Minister for Jobs, Investment, Tourism and Western Sydney Stuart Ayres says it has been an incredibly tough time with huge upheaval and change for the NSW workforce.

“Thousands of jobs were lost through this crisis and those who kept working were put under immense pressure and had to adapt quickly. Many NSW workers and businesses were prompted to try remote working for the first time,” Mr Ayres says.

“The IPC’s report looks into what we learnt from the experience, and how it could affect the future of work. While the NSW government is now encouraging public servants to spend more time back in the office, we can expect long-term changes to how our working week takes shape.”

IPC member Steve Sammartino says the report showed the pandemic has sparked a cultural shift on remote working, with many employees and businesses experiencing benefits and with more appetite to work remotely.

“The biggest benefit is the time we save from commuting, which on average is more than an hour a day. Reducing traffic congestion makes life better for everyone, even people who don’t work remotely,” Mr Sammartino says.

“We are also more productive when we work from home, with NSW remote workers 13 per cent more productive than when they work onsite.

“But COVID-19 pushed remote working to an unhealthy extreme, with a lot of work unable to be done remotely, it can get lonely, and collaboration is difficult.

“In the future, NSW workers want the best of both worlds — a hybrid of remote and onsite work. Cities and offices will be buzzing again, and central business districts will be crucial for collaboration, innovation and consumption.”

The hybrid working model seems to have won over many workers as well. A poll of 2,557 working professionals by recruiting firm Hays found that 61 per cent of Australians said a hybrid working model was best for them in order to be most productive.

On the other hand, just 21 per cent of professionals said the central office model is the most conducive to their productivity, while the remaining 18 per cent preferred exclusive remote working.

Managing director of Hays in Australia and New Zealand Nick Deligiannis said social distancing measures have certainly proven that a large percentage of the workforce can work productively and successfully from home.

“For many employees, overall performance, job satisfaction and work/life balance even increased as less time was spent commuting or dealing with the distractions of office working,” Mr Deligiannis says.

“But at the same time, there are a number of employers who want to bring staff back into the one central office for the cultural and collaboration benefits that face-to-face working offers.

“Given this, a longer-term shift towards a hybrid working model could be the ideal middle ground that allows employees to work flexibly on certain days of the week, then come together with colleagues in a central workplace on others.”

In addition, Mr Deligiannis says a hybrid working model would allow people to balance office life and remote working in a mix that works best for them and their employer, while offering the organisation the staff attraction and retention benefits that come from a flexible and digital employment model.

“Already as employers begin to encourage staff back to the office, they are reimagining their flexible working policies to accommodate a hybrid working model longer term,” he says.

“Such employers are intentionally looking to the future and how they and their staff can benefit most effectively from this new way of working.”

Managing the risks

Even as hybrid working moves ever more into the mainstream, it does not come without its risks to worker health and wellbeing if not properly managed. The most prominent of those risks is the lines between work and personal life blurring to a point not previously seen.

A Deloitte report found that employees have experienced a 15 per cent increase in their workday length, leading to fears of over-productivity in an outcome-based environment.

“Workers who opt into remote work may be at risk of working more to keep delivering outcomes and demonstrating productivity in a world where behind-the-scenes efforts are not visible to their peers and leaders,” the report said.

“During recent COVID-19 lockdowns, remote workers experienced workdays that lasted 48.5 minutes longer than average.”

The report also found 71 per cent of working parents reported managing distance learning for their children as a significant source of stress during COVID-19 remote work.

“Parents are at work and working while parenting, Millennials are working from the spaces where they eat and sleep, and the savoured time to decompress on the commute home has evaporated, promoting an ‘always on’ phenomenon,” Deloitte said.

“Organisations are tasked with the challenge of designing the new ‘third space’, creating new norms around where, when and how work is completed, and applying the lens of employee wellbeing to new work model designs.”

Deloitte summarised it best by saying the COVID-19 pandemic has “resulted in the largest work experiment in modern history”. For better or worse, our pre-conceived notions of work are now very much relics of the past. We have been propelled into the future of work.

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