With the pandemic now entering its third year, what was initially dubbed a “remote working experiment” has evolved into a hybrid model that looks set to be permanent — and represents a fundamental shift in working arrangements.
On the day of Lindt cafe siege in December 2014, Liberty Specialty Markets had 120 staff in its Sydney office. When the insurance company heard reports that police had shut down a nearby area on suspicion of other terrorists being at large, Liberty implemented its crisis management emergency process.
Staff were sent home in taxis with their laptops and instructions on how to access the network using the VPN connection. Some senior management remained onsite to coordinate the evacuation and communicate with its US head office in Boston.
The tragic events of the siege ended the following day and Liberty staff were able to safely return to the office. Its leadership team held a meeting to discuss the lessons learned and it was clear that there were significant obstacles to implementing company-wide remote working. For a start, 40 per cent of its staff didn’t have a laptop, so over the next 18 months, desktop computers were eliminated. Bandwidth was also increased and VPN connectivity was upgraded.
“We were heavily paper-based and realised that wasn’t the way forward,” says John McCabe GAICD, Liberty senior vice president and chief operating officer. “By the time work-from-home orders came [from the federal government] in March 2020, pretty much everyone was paperless.”
While Liberty may have had a head start on other organisations in adapting to the abrupt onset of remote working, McCabe says that the past two years have provided further valuable insights.
New leadership style
“As leaders, we’ve had to change our approach,” says McCabe. “Rather than the being the lead of every meeting I’m in, I’ll now say to someone else, ‘Right, you run the meeting’. The great thing about virtual meetings is that you can go around the room and ask everyone to contribute. Whereas in the old days, it was the extroverts and leaders who tended to dominate the conversation.”
ANZ was also quick to recognise that its leaders would need to draw on different skills during times of widespread uncertainty and stress. “Early on, we ran a program called Leading through Change, which is based on neuroscience,” says Kathryn van der Merwe, group executive talent and culture at ANZ. “It helps leaders understand the impacts of a stressful environment, and to develop strategies to support themselves and their teams.”
She also credits it with helping ANZ to maintain productivity over the long term.
The bank seeks to replicate some of the lost opportunities for its board members to connect with a cross-section of the organisation. For example, prior to the pandemic, the ANZ board regularly spent time on the floor or in bank branches to connect directly with team members. With those opportunities mostly lost, it consciously facilitated a broader range of staff interaction with board members on those occasions when face-to-face meetings were possible.
“Last year, we invited a group of staff who have done great things to strengthen the risk culture,” says van der Merwe. “It was a great way of recognising our staff and it also provided the board with access to a great cross-section of people. It helps the board keep its finger on the pulse of the organisation, rather than [just] relying on reported data.”
For McCabe, another key insight as a leader has been around empathy and resilience — and how it can lead to creating a stronger culture, notwithstanding a lack of in-person contact.
“We recognise that we employ the whole person — not just the person who comes to the office — and we find ways to help them when things are not going well,” he says. “As leaders, we have to be pretty transparent ourselves in demonstrating our own vulnerability. The reality is that we all have a life beyond the office. It’s reinforced that patience and kindness is important; and it’s made our culture even stronger.”
Hyper-personalisation on the horizon
Many organisations are differentiating themselves by the model of work they adopt — and using it as a tool to attract and retain talent. A global survey conducted by PwC in 2021 found that only 10 per cent of employees wanted to return to the office full-time; and 74 per cent of Australian respondents said they would prefer a mix of face-to-face and remote working. While the so-called “Great Resignation” is nowhere near as pronounced in Australia as it appears to be in the US, companies that demand a full-time return to the office could find themselves short on talent, say some experts.
Twitter was one of the first to announce a “remote first” model of work, whereby its employees could work remotely permanently, should they wish. Similarly, Australian software company Atlassian generated news headlines in April 2021, when it announced its “Team Anywhere” policy, whereby its 5700 staff around the world can work from any country where the company has a corporate entity, so long as they have the legal right to work and the time zone is broadly in sync.
ANZ is not taking this path, says van der Merwe. “Some organisations have gone for the ‘work remotely from anywhere’ approach, but that’s not been ours. Our emphasis is on having regular and frequent face-to-face contact, because we believe that’s important for strengthening culture and apprenticing new team members. Our staff are working remotely right now because of Omicron, but when it’s safe to do so, we want to move back to a model where people spend time together.”
The bank recognises hybrid working “requires an ongoing effort and focus to make it an effective way of working” and maintains a certain vigilance against common “traps” that erode productivity. “Early on in the pandemic, we experienced more emails and days full of meetings,” says van der Merwe. “So we shortened meetings and encouraged meeting- free days. Another trap is the tendency to work in a more siloed way, so we make sure there are opportunities for cross-team sharing of work. It’s a constant watchpoint.”
To date, Liberty has refrained from setting a company-wide hybrid work policy, leaving it up to teams to determine which days of the week to work from the office. “We’re not going to set anything in stone,” says McCabe. “We’ve learned that flexibility and adaptability are critical. We can’t just come out with a set of instructions and think that if it works today, it will work in three months’ time. If we’ve learned anything from COVID-19, it’s that things keep moving.”
Louise Watts MAICD, co-founder of workforce transformation group Transition Hub, expects to see the emerging trend of hyper-personalisation gain currency, with employers letting individuals decide when and where they work. “The past couple of years have given everybody a really good chance to see what works,” she says. “It’s no longer about having the big impressive office to go to. It’s about recognising that different people work better under different circumstances. While recognising that there are times when people need to come together for collaborative work, outside of that, people are much more interested in having their organisation open to their needs, versus just setting a rule around how things are going to be.”
Professions most likely to remain WFH:
- Business/systems analysts/programmers
- Database/ system administrators/ ICT security specialists
- Arts professionals
- Media professionals
- ICT network/support professionals
- Financial/ insurance clerks
- Information/ organisation professionals
- Architects/designers/ planners/surveyors
- ICT managers
- Sales/marketing/ PR professionals
Huw Thomas GAICD, principal consultant at BlueSeed Consulting, believes parameters ought to be set depending on the nature of the role and the industry. “Arrangements should be personalised — to a point,” he says. “It shouldn’t come at the expense of other stakeholders or optimising the overall business. Saying ‘You can do whatever you want’ to people may risk others in the business not having much access to their colleagues in different divisions, or creating a negative experience for customers and vendors.”
New market entrants such as Officeworks’ recently launched Flexiworks platform are incorporating specialist risk assessments into their capabilities. Flexiworks can undertake workplace assessments for “work-from- anywhere” staff before onboarding.
Thomas adds that while some degree of flexibility is now expected, employers and senior leaders need to decide where to draw the line. “There needs to be enough flexibility to attract the top talent, but not negatively impact the existing talent. There should be a board-level conversation around ensuring consistency, mitigating risk and driving business performance,” he says.
Another consideration is proximity bias, the idea that employees with close physical proximity to their leaders will ultimately find more success in the workplace than their remote counterparts. While it is too soon to assess its impact, Thomas sees it as a natural consequence of extra face time with senior leaders. “It [proximity bias] emphasises the need for a solid performance management framework and ways of making decisions around promotions and bonuses. It highlights the need for a strong degree of maturity about assessing the impact of working from anywhere. That could involve being honest with people about the impacts of proximity bias itself.”
The onset of hybrid working has fundamentally changed the way businesses communicate internally and led to a proliferation in collaborative tools. “Before COVID-19, we used to have post-it notes on the walls — that’s been adapted for a virtual environment,” says van der Merwe. We’ve introduced a lot of new tools and adapted the way we use other tools to help people stay connected.”
ANZ uses Yammer for company-wide conversations and working parent support groups. “They’ve been really energising events,” says van de Merwe. “We might have a whole leadership team online to exchange ideas . You can see where the energy is around certain topics and spend your time on those.”
While some organisations saw the pandemic as an opportunity to save costs on office space, providing a safe home working environment still needs to be factored into their risk calculus.
For ongoing communication, companies like Medibank or Mirvac use apps like the WorkSafe Guardian. Designed for at-risk lone workers, the app operates a 24/7 response centre for health and safety alerts from staff. The real-time capabilities of an app can limit an organisation’s exposure to at-home incidents for solo workers.
Officeworks’ Flexiworks lets employers fulfil expectations around home set-ups, where employees are given credits to spend on the platform and curate their work-from-anywhere (WFA) offices. A personalised dashboard tracks health and safety risks, and delivers automated activity statements for employer monitoring.
Some organisations are drowning in choices and there can be a tendency to blindly adopt the latest solution if the marketing is slick, says Thomas. “People fall into the trap of believing some new app will solve all their problems, but they aren’t being mindful of fundamental communication principles, such as using simple language and communicating with the audience in mind. People are just pinging each other nonstop through the chat function and being added to group chats they don’t need to be involved in.”
He warns that over-collaboration is a risk that can damage culture and lead to burnout, and recommends putting together specific communication guidelines and recommending them at an organisation-wide level.
Watts is upbeat about the future of work. “As much as the pandemic has brought about terrible things, we needed something to fast-track us into a more human way of working — and it has certainly done that,” she says. “We must continue to take advantage of the changes and not slip back into old ways of working.”
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