By Sophie McCarthy & Tessa Sexton
Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced up to 40% of Australian workers home to their bedrooms and kitchen tables to continue working, many leaders including Tesla’s Elon Musk are still measuring their organisation’s productivity and success by how many people physically walk through their office door each day. For other leaders and their teams, it has presented a unique opportunity to co-create a great place to work, where people have a level of choice and flexibility that they’ve never enjoyed before. Elon Musk has been clear in his expectations – demanding staff work 40 hours per week in the office or resign and many employees are voting with their feet and leaving. So, what can Australia leaders do to create attractive workplaces to retain their best people in a climate of low unemployment and ensure their organisations remain sustainable and commercially viable?
Advocates of office-based work argue that organisations are more productive, collaborative, inclusive and purposeful when people are physically together. Whereas the majority of employees report feeling more productive, autonomous, healthier and financially ahead when they work from home. They save time and money on the commute, indeed the AFR reported last week that it will cost employees $10,000 a year to work in the office 5 days a week. Australia has the lowest unemployment rate in decades and retaining talent is a top priority for the nations board rooms at the moment so it’s probably strategic to offer employees the flexibility they have come to enjoy or risk losing them to an organisation that does.
A group of business executives, non-executive directors, coaches and mentors who work with McCarthy Mentoring around the globe regularly get together to discuss leadership issues. In last week’s session, the hybrid workplace and its challenges was the number one topic. People felt it was hard, complicated and different for everyone, but despite the range of industries, global locations and levels of comfort with hybrid workplace arrangements, everyone agreed that now is a unique opportunity for leaders. For many, they saw it as the chance to challenge their bias, ask questions and listen to their teams and customers to together create the future version of a great place to work. Or as Work Futurist, Dominic Price at Atlassian quoted this week, “let’s invest in creating tomorrow’s good old days.”
The consensus was mandates won’t work. People want choice. They want to be trusted, offered flexible options on where and how they do their work while still being connected and collaborative. What that looks like is up for negotiation with some frank conversations on what both parties need, what your role involves and some experimenting to test different approaches.
Despite having the technology to enable it, pre Covid, our workplace cultures, processes and norms did not encourage working from home. It was something working mums did and was regarded as career limiting. The Working From Home Research paper produced by the Australian Productivity Commission in 2021 reports that: ‘In 2019, around 8% of employees had a formal work-from-home arrangement, and worked a median of one day per week from home. Overall, around 2% of total hours were worked from home (2021: 8). It was not common.’
It’s been a significant change for both employees and their employers and like any change, people have different emotional responses to this. Some miss the buzz of the office, some never liked it, leaders feel affronted that their large offices feel empty and quiet. I get it, it’s confronting! One senior person in a company told me last week “I feel like I have no skills when I’m at home, all the things I bring to my role are human. I talk to people, meet with them, build relationships, take people out to lunch, this is how I work and do business,” he said.
Among our mentors, many of whom are also CEO’s, the full spectrum of responses was laid bare. A former global executive who travelled half the year for his role in a pharmaceutical company, but who is now based in Melbourne running a medical device company said he was loving his few days at home, the quiet, the freedom and then coming to the office for meetings and connecting or going straight to clients. It was not a working life he had ever considered or condoned. Others were struggling with their comfort of not seeing people in person and felt staff who chose to work remotely were not meeting the unwritten workplace contract they had signed up to, where you attended an office, mentored and coached junior people and contributed to a workplace culture that defined the organisation. They could not see how this could be done virtually yet recognised the need to make this happen. The feeling of loss and abandonment was palpable.
In June 2022, for the almost 40% of Australian workers who can do their work from home with a phone and a computer the majority are voting for flexibility. Employees want a job where they are valued for their contribution, remunerated fairly, where they can develop skills and networks, with an organisation they’re proud of and leadership that motivates them. They want a manager who knows their name, meets with them every few weeks, who can mentor them and develop their career.
Business owners and leaders want productive, accountable and engaged staff, who perform their jobs to a high standard, who behave ethically and care about their organisation and contribute to its culture and the development of others. To do this effectively, physical work spaces may need to be adapted to enable more collaboration when people meet in person; less office space may be required; new rules and etiquettes will be developed to ensure virtual meetings are inclusive; initiatives to encourage interaction, fun and conversations will be important; onboarding and structured mentoring to inform, inspire and connect people across organisations will be a greater priority; certain work activities may be deemed ‘in person’ to achieve higher levels of focus and innovation and tech platforms to support people working from anywhere will remain paramount.
Ultimately, the best leaders will create organisations, not just places you want to work – it was ever thus.