Hybrid workplace 2021

With the great working from home experiment still in full swing, but with many CEOs and staff also needing and wanting to return to the office, a number of companies are looking at new hybrid work models - where staff will work both from the office and at home.

Nearly half of all staff surveyed in August this year by financial services firm EY say they prefer a mix of office and home settings, reports EY People Partner Kate Hillman. “What our people are telling us is they miss that camaraderie and collaboration in the office,” she told AICD in an interview. “So we know there's a desire that when they're in the office they want to connect and to co-create. But they're also telling us that the remote working is really facilitating their ability to focus and to do deep concentration activities as well. So it's going to be good to be able to provide both.”

According to the survey results, 48 per cent of EY employees in Australia and NZ want a mix of office and home settings and 44 per cent want to work remotely from now on and use the office for specific purposes, like client meetings, team building and social events. Around 87 per cent agree there needs to be a rethink of how office space is used.

As a result, possible downsizing of office space is now under consideration by EY, adds Hillman. “As long as we're going to have social distancing we can't downsize – we need all the space,” she said. “But there will be changes, of course, whether it's the repurposing of the space we have, or whether it's reduction of the real estate footprint.” Across Australia, the return to work plan for EY varies state-by-state. By September this year, in Adelaide, 23 per cent of EY staff had returned to the office, compared to 15 per cent in Perth, 12 per cent in Brisbane, 8 per cent in Canberra and 4 per cent in Sydney.

We miss the water cooler

Interestingly, international research from Atlassian shows that Australians are missing their workplaces more than those from other countries. The research found that the remote working environment has left many yearning for workplace banter. Three in four (77 per cent) Australians missed the energy of their workplace, which is significantly higher than the 50 per cent of global workers longing for water cooler conversations, says the report titled Reworking Work: Understanding the Rise of Work Anywhere. Conducted by Australian research agency Paper Giant, more than 5,000 participants from Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the US were surveyed on working from home.

Importantly, the research found people are closer to their teams but more distant from their organisations, with connections to colleagues and the wider organisation weaker. Three key factors were also found to influence people’s ability to adapt to distributed styles of work – household complexity, role complexity and network quality. However, the report warns that remote work may lead to an innovation drought due to more formal connection and structured communication, and that people fear remote work may prevent career progression.

The overseas picture

Overseas, the return-to-work picture is mixed. Many large technology companies – including Fujitsu, Google and Siemens – have committed to long-term remote work plans. While others such as Twitter, Netflix, Facebook and Atlassian are allowing staff to continue to work from home (although Atlassian staff can return to the office in January if they wish).

However, Netflix head Reed Hastings is one CEO who has made it clear he is not in favour of working from home. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Hastings said: “No. I don’t see any positives. Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative.” (For now, all 8,600 Netflix employees will continue to work remotely until an approved coronavirus vaccine becomes available).

Facebook is looking for a director of remote work as it plans for a more permanent shift to working from home. Facebook staff will continue working from home until July 2021, and the firm will provide a $US1,000 bonus for employees to set up a home office. CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he expects half the company’s global workforce of 48,000 to work remotely within the next 10 years and that many will be allowed to work from home permanently.

What does office work look like now?

As we adjust to a return to the office in Australia, companies report that they have changed workplaces in the following ways:

What’s OUT

Hot desking

Sitting in communal spaces such as kitchens

Freedom of movement in buildings

What’s IN

Hybrid work models (a mix of work from home and the office)

Apps that allow workers to book office desks

Restrictions on meeting rooms

Restrictions on lift occupancy

Surveys of staff to gauge their desire to return to work

Incentives for staff to return to work (for example, parking for City of Sydney staff)

Devices to check staff temperatures, such as thermal cameras

A phased return to work and staggered start and finish times

Safe physical distancing

Ways to monitor wellbeing in remote staff

Tech tools to connect remote staff

Shared office spaces for firms that have terminated office leases

Snapshot: Where we are at in Australia

ANZ

Managing nearly 40,000 staff during the crisis across 32 countries which have different geographical COVID-19 requirements has been no easy task for the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ). ANZ was one of the first corporations to shut down travel as its exposure to overseas locations such as China meant it saw how serious the crisis was early on. It adapted risk management and other lessons from overseas in Australia to manage the crisis. ANZ still has many staff in the Philippines and India who are continue to work from home.

“We were able to really learn quickly from Hong Kong and China,” said Group Executive for Talent and Culture Kathryn van der Merwe. “This was because we have the teams on the ground there that were living it.”

She says 40 per cent of staff in Adelaide had returned to the office by September this year on a rotation basis and 30 per cent in Sydney on rotation. Branch frontline staff everywhere including in Melbourne have worked in the office or branches all along, however, as they are deemed an essential service.

“In those cities that have been open for a while, I think people feel more comfortable coming back now, but our position all along has been that it's really up to staff and what they feel comfortable to be doing,” she says. “We are not pushing people back into the office.”

Two-thirds of ANZ staff surveyed say they prefer a model where they can work a few days in the office and a few days from home. In the future, for most roles there will be a combination of working from home and working from an office location, van der Merwe told AICD in an interview. “I think people have learned through this time that they can work productively from home. They value time in the office, particularly around kind of connecting and collaborating. And watercooler conversations, plus the energy around being there. Also, obviously not everybody is in a home setup that's ideal.”

In its offices, ANZ has imposed COVID-19 restrictions such as halting use of communal areas, and is using a temperature check machine upon entry to the staff floors in major sites. It has also restricted movement around the building and offers mandatory training for those who return to work so they know what the rules are.

Staff need to realise that the office environment is not what it was once was, she adds. “I think one of the questions that we have at the moment is: ‘What's the value proposition of being in an office? Because of all the social distancing, and splitting teams obviously to mitigate risks, what's great about being in an office environment isn't actually present at the moment. I think that's one of the big challenges.”

The ANZ strategy to organise staff to work from home and now return to the office is being managed by the executive team which is divided into sub teams. Van der Merwe is part of the ‘Adapt’ team, which includes their deputy CEO, chief risk officer and chief technology officer.

IAG

IAG is Australia’s largest general insurer and most of its 11,000 staff have been told they can continue to work from home until the end of January next year. Staff are located in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

“From an overarching perspective across the country, we are currently not anticipating large-scale return to sites before the end of January and to provide certainty for our employees we have advised that if they wish to continue to work from home until 31 January 2021, then they can,” Suzanne Storrie, IAG Crisis Director COVID-19 told the AICD in an interview.

IAG provided a $400 payment to every employee to help them to set up a workstation at home at the start of the pandemic and since then, has provided a $40 per month allowance as a contribution to working from home expenses.

A June staff survey showed less than five per cent of staff want to return to an office site full time and that most want to continue to work from home on a regular basis after sites safely re-open. A hybrid model of work will be used next year. “…we anticipate that a hybrid model of work, involving working from home and the office, will be desirable for many of our people and our existing flexibility approach will accommodate those that choose to work this way,” says Storrie.

The return to the office will be managed by a dedicated COVID-19 response team headed by Storrie.

The insurer is also introducing a desk booking system to ensure physical distancing when staff return to offices and has provided guidance around meeting safely with colleagues and customers, including live video assessments for claims.

City of Sydney

The City of Sydney has 2,000 staff (plus casuals and contractors) who began returning to the office in July on a phased one day a week basis. From October, staff are working two days a week in the office and the rest from home under a hybrid model, says Susan Pettifer, Head of People.

The workforce reports to Sydney City Council and this year has had to adjust health and safety requirements not only for staff but also the tens of thousands of citizens and visitors who attend big events such as Chinese New Year.

Around 80 to 90 per cent of all staff are expected to be back in the office by February next year and this year have been offered incentives such as free car parking in the Sydney CBD for essential workers to ease the transition back to the workplace.

Some staff have expressed fears due to health concerns and travelling on public transport. City of Sydney has organized altered start times for staff and staggered shifts to manage capacities and encourage non-peak travel. “We've measured every meeting room,” says Pettifer.

Fulltime remote working is not a sustainable long-term strategy for City of Sydney, she says. Research shows remote teams tend to have a stronger sense of connection of belonging to the team, but not to the wider whole organisation. According to a recent staff survey, most staff like the idea of a hybrid arrangement for the future, according to Pettifer. “The vast majority like the idea of a hybrid arrangement with some days in the office to stay connected with peers and to collaborate and some days working from home.”

Maintaining culture and connection has been one of the biggest challenges this year, says Pettifer. “I think everybody's asking the question - or should be asking the question, what does that mean for organisational culture, when people don't see each other as often,” she told the AICD during an interview.

“It means we have to be much more intentional about managing it. I think we can lose people in the process. It's hard to read whether somebody is really engaged or is not feeling a sense of connection or belonging or when you're just operating remotely.”

“We did a huge amount of risk analysis,” says Pettifer. Every manager was required to put together a service and workplace recovery plan and prepare a COVID-19 risk assessment and plan, to include meeting room limits, rules for lifts, extra cleaning and management of visitors.

City of Sydney also wants to get office staff back to work in its main building which houses 1,200 because it is trying to reinvigorate the CBD, which has been very hard hit by COVID-19, says Pettifer. A COVID-19 recovery plan to bring the city centre back to life, with 24-hour alfresco dining and other options, has been developed by the City of Sydney and the NSW government. “We want to lead by example.”

Atlassian

As the pandemic rolls on, software giant Atlassian is giving its 5,000 workers globally the option of returning to the office if they want to in January. The company has announced TEAM Anywhere, a hybrid work model that allows the choice to work from any combination of home, office or other locations.

“We're already doing a very small pilot in Australia (Sydney), with a small percentage of people, testing out opening our office. So there are less than 10 per cent of our people in there right now,” Work Futurist, Dom Price told the AICD in an interview. “The thing we want to avoid is an accidental two-tier system, where the in-office people benefit from line of sight or different treatment. “We want it to be equitable.”

As at October this year, Atlassian staff in Australia and overseas were still mostly working from home. The firm gave staff in Australia $750 to set up a home office.

According to the Atlassian survey Reworking Work: Understanding the Rise of Work Anywhere, 43 per cent of workers surveyed across five countries would prefer to work completely from home, especially caregivers. “There's this overarching theme in this research, a sort of positivity towards the work from home experiment,” says Price. “I think a lot of people have felt liberated by it, but also a little bit frustrated, because I think for a lot of people, they felt like they could have been working from home before COVID-19.”

Three in four Australians interviewed for the survey reported feeling annoyed that it took a pandemic for them to be able to work mostly from home. Seventy-seven per cent noted they now spend much more time coordinating with others via email, SMS and other messaging platforms. Over half (66 per cent) spend more time reporting to clients and managers. Sixty-nine per cent noted they feel lost without their general work routines of getting dressed and commuting. And 73 per cent agreed the pandemic improved their personal satisfaction with their company’s leadership.

However, Australian miss their offices much more than their overseas counterparts. “I think in Australia, I don't know if it's the demographic or something unique there, but it seems like actually we kind care about our teammates, that we kind of like them,” says Price. “Australians are very social animals, but I also think it's a massive testament to the workplaces we've built in Australia. We've always had a focus on culture and values and inclusion, and a rich tapestry of people from very different backgrounds.”

Likewise, there are many business managers out there who want staff to return to an office where they can see them, observes Price. “In the time that we've had COVID, one of the highest-growing software segments in the world is surveillance software,” he said. “Basically, you roll out software to all your people’s machines, and it takes a screenshot of workers every 10 minutes. It then analyzes what it sees on the screen and gives the worker a productivity score.”

Due to the changed nature of work, leaders need to tune into staff preferences much more and develop a different and more empathic leadership approach to take into account individual circumstances, says Price. Atlassian itself has rolled out a team of coaches internally to build and trial a play exercise which teaches managers how to build empathy with their staff. “The strange thing about the office was that it was a great leveller,” says Price. “Everyone had the same desk same screens and laptops and toilets and Wi-Fi.”

But now with remote distributed workforces, leaders need to take into account other factors such as background and personal situations such as household complexity.

One major benefit of having a distributed workforce is giving hiring managers access to a more diverse workforce away from cities, who may have disabilities, and different socioeconomic status. “Those people will make my teams more diverse,” says Price. “The right teams are more innovative and my customers will be happier. That is a win-win situation.”

NAB

NAB, with 34,000 staff, had returned between 20 and 46 per cent of employees to offices across Australia by September this year (excluding Victoria). “Since March, we have enabled more than 85 per cent of our 34,000 colleagues to work from home, some of whom had never worked from home previously,” Susan Ferrier, NAB Group Executive - People & Culture told the AICD in an interview.

“While we manage through this transition in the short term, we are also looking ahead to what the new normal will look like for businesses like ours in the long term,” she added. While stopping short of saying when all staff would return to the office, she said NAB is finding solutions to provide flexibility for staff to work and collaborate in different ways, while providing banking services to customers and the community.

The latest regular staff survey results show that 68 per cent feel their health, wellbeing and happiness has improved or stayed the same this year (but 21 per cent said it had decreased). Eighty-three per cent felt their productivity had improved or stayed the same (but 11 per cent said it had decreased). Eighty-two per cent felt their ability to serve customers had improved or stayed the same (but 12 per cent reported a decrease). “With the exception of business-critical and branch colleagues, we have not directed anyone to return to the office so far – all colleagues that have returned to the office have done so voluntarily. As restrictions ease, we are carefully planning a return to work strategy that is designed to maintain a high level of productivity while taking our colleagues’ personal concerns and preferences into account.”

Safety measures introduced into NAB’s commercial buildings include on-site nurse stations, thermal cameras to measure body temperatures, lift management for social distancing, a ceasing of hot-desking, booking of desks via an online booking tool, the closure of most meeting rooms and collaboration/communal spaces, touchless water taps, and removal of communal crockery and cutlery from kitchens. “While many things will feel familiar, there are some aspects that will look different, such as wearing face masks, maintaining a 1.5m distance and not shaking hands,” says Ferrier. Since February, NAB had also installed around 260 hygiene screens and guards (sneeze screens) across branches, business banking centres and commercial sites and issued more than 50,000 bottles of hand sanitiser.

Virtual event: Workplace health and wellbeing

EY People Partner Kate Hillman will take part in an AICD virtual event on October 15: Is Mental health and wellbeing your organisation’s competitive advantage?

Access the event live or access the recording to hear experts Jono Nicholas, Kate Hillman and Kate Carnell AO FAICD explore the considerations for boards as they work to protect their organisations.