Returning to the Office

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With the further easing of restrictions in Victoria the speculation and conversation that started with the directive to work from home has shifted to questions about how will we know when it’s time to return to the office and importantly what will a return to the office look like?

Microsoft and Twitter have made remote work a permanent thing whilst Google, Salesforce, Facebook, PayPal and Cloud Guru are among the companies extending remote working well into mid 2021.  US reports suggest that almost half (48%) of employees indicate that they would prefer to work from home after the pandemic and also that the move to remote working had resulted in them having a more positive view of their organisation.  Similarly a survey of UK workers indicated that nearly 9 our of 10 want to maintain working from home as an option after COVID. 

Locally, some companies are further cashing in on the remote working situation by reducing their physical office footprint including  NAB who are discussing remote plans with their employees for well into the new year and who are also rumoured to be “mothballing” one or more of their older Melbourne office buildings. 

A fascinating survey by Airtasker has even claimed productivity benefits because remote employees work 1.4 more days every month than those who work in an office and “on those workdays, they spent more time getting things done”.  The suggestion being that the combination of savings in commute time may contribute to the former and office-based non-work related conversation (particularly with management) contribute to the latter. 

It hasn’t all been beer and skittles – there has been a widely reported increase in cybercrime simultaneous with the move to remote working under COVID-19 with reports that “The months between April and June saw a 65 per cent increase in cybersecurity incidents”.  The stampede from the office has increased the vulnerability of some businesses as employees use the tools at hand in a relatively less protected network, hardware and software environments. 

The benefits and demands associated with the move to remote working have also been unevenly distributed.  Parents with school age children have faced a difficult period.  Single parents and those who rely on extended family have been some of the hardest hit. In many cases both home schooling and housekeeping tasks are falling to increasingly isolated working mothers raising the question – what does this mean for mothers and equality?  And also – what does it mean for stress levels ? 

In addition, there has been a slowly increasing awareness of the more vulnerable members of society who use on-site office work as a refuge from difficult home situations.  Organisations such as NAB have begun to recognise the complex nature of control that lies at the heart of many of these cases by extending support to provide paid leave to staff managing challenges associated with domestic abuse, providing dedicated support to customers facing such abuse and even shutting down some of the misuse of the financial system for perpetrating such abuse. Beyond questions of what responsibility organisations have for supporting people facing these difficult and sometimes deadly situations are concerns about what the implications are for these people if remote working is the norm or indeed is expected. If people want to work in the office but are encouraged not to, will they be forced to declare a home situation that they feel uncomfortable or embarrassed about? 

As we look forward and prepare for a COVID Normal work environment, there is going to be quite a range of factors for organisations to consider. 

Whilst many principles for how to be efficient and effective remain similar between on site and remote work we can also expect there to be some changes too.  Performance and management techniques based around command and control or focused on “line of sight” micro-managing are likely to be ineffective in an on-going remote working environment forcing those managers for whom this is a default working style to shift instead to managing to an outcome. 

What also is the future for open plan environments under a social distancing scenario.  Small meeting spaces have been part of the reconfiguration of many office buildings recently in an effort to provide for the various types of collaborative activity and increase building occupant density.  Are these physical collaborative workspaces now feasible places to return to work in? 

Some organisations are considering more creative approaches – for instance two team or green team/blue team approaches where one team is in the office for a week whilst the other works remotely followed by a switchover.  This aims to minimise both the risk of infection and the impact of any infection by simultaneously minimising the likely infection impact to only half of any team. 

However, there are social and political challenges and tensions from this approach too – what do you do if your manager is in one team and you are in the other such that you rarely see each other face-to-face? 

Some may even recall that before the pandemic IBM had reversed it’s earlier remote working to bring staff back into the office to promote better collaboration and integration between teams. 

One thing that has stood out is those businesses that have seized the opportunity and demonstrated business agility by pivoting to each new situation.  Some, like Bunnings have identified new customer demands and ramped up an existing digital offering, leveraging it for better value whilst other organisations like food retailers have taken advantage of allied digital offerings like Deliveroo and Uber eats.  Whilst there is an acceptance that people will return to many of the activities they previously enjoyed (like eating out with family and friends) there is also a suggestion that some consumer behaviour may have permanently changed.  Consumer expectations have been raised around availability of products and services online and frictionless digital-meets-logistics.  Now more than ever digital is no longer optional. 

Certainly this pandemic and its implications were predicted by virtually zero economists 12 months ago and in a context where rules and restrictions change with minimal advance warning the move to technologies that facilitate collaboration and increase transparency has been unavoidable.  However, most organisations have done the minimum they need to remain functional.  

As we start to plan for some kind of return to work scenario, now is the time to start thinking about what the future work environment will look like and most importantly, make sure your business is ready..  

We believe the following must be high on the agenda when planning your return to the office: 

  • People, Safety and choice: It goes without saying, the safety of your staff will be a significant consideration, at least until a longer term COVID solution is established. Choice within the workplace/location, however, will also likely be something that employers will need to plan for. With a taste and some levels of success from working from home arrangements, demanding an exclusively office based working condition may be difficult for employers to re-establish and so should be planned for. 
  • Tools, systems and processes:  Do you have tools in place and optimised for in-office and remote working in order to ensure a sense of equality for those working in office and remotely? Does your ecosystem allow for running a start of day stand-up with 50% of the team in the office and 50% remote?  Is there equal access to IP and artifacts? 
  • Ways of working and methods: Ways of working need to be flexible to enable equivalency between working in the office and remotely.  Methods need to extend to how you consider performance and how you show progress.  Managers in your organisation who have relied on line-of-sight to people will need help to move to a contemporary way of managing to outcomes. 
  • Consideration for travel to and from work / public transport perceived risk and flexible working hours. Do you need to move office hours to ensure there is no longer a peak commute time? Is it appropriate to consider moving office location to the suburbs to allow for safer travel. 

If you have any questions about the above – ask us how we can help. Contact Us Here