Four years ago, when people hunkered down in their homes to slow the spread of COVID, businesses that made and moved things crumpled, but office work continued.
After years of resistance from many bosses, it was comprehensively proved that workers whose major output is keystrokes can get the job done at home. No fancy new tech was required – just a table, a laptop, an internet connection, files in the cloud and Zoom.
Now mandating a full-time return to the office is not an option for employers – that could trigger a staff exodus – and big businesses in Perth are clearly aiming for the middle ground.
At Woodside headquarters, where no one has their own desk, employees are asked to be at work about 60 per cent of the time.
“We see the benefit of our people being present in the office, having face-to-face time with their colleagues to build teamwork and foster innovation,” a Woodside spokesman said.
The rules are flexible. They need to be. It is impossible for employees in Perth to talk to colleagues in Houston, the company’s second-biggest centre, within their regular working hours as the time zones provide no overlap.
On St Georges Terrace, WA’s two iron ore giants have also moved well away from a rigid five days a week in the office.
BHP recommends at least two to three days a week in the office and encourages “anchor days” where all members of a team are in at the same time.
A spokesman said BHP found these days balanced building connections between employees and allowing them to work elsewhere. He said flexible work had been a game changer for the miner, improving its ability to attract workers and helped improve its gender balance that is now 35 per cent female globally.
Rival Rio Tinto allows employees to agree with their supervisors where and when they work. That schedule is shared with the rest of the team with recognition that it will change at times to suit personal and business needs.
For workers, the main attractions of working from home are very practical.
A global survey of more than 20,000 workers revealed that three of the top five positives from working at home were about saving time and money: no commuting, less time getting ready for work, and money saved on lunch and petrol. Having flexibility about when the work was done and individual quiet time to concentrate also featured.
In contrast, the 2023 survey found it was social benefits that drew workers back to the office, with socialising with colleagues, working face-to-face, and clearer boundaries between work and personal time leading the pack.
Australians worked an average 1.3 days at home a week – the fourth highest of the 34 countries surveyed – but want to do an average 2.2 days a week.
Angela Ferguson, a workplace strategist with Sydney-based Futurespace, said a one-day gap between employee and employer expectations was common.
There is more to getting working from home right than deciding how much time to spend in each place.
Ferguson knew of one company that decided everyone had to come to work on Tuesday.
“Then they found that ‘all-in Tuesday’ wasn’t working,” she said.
“There was too much pressure on the space and everyone was in meetings all day.”
Other companies rotate teams into the office on a roster, halving their need for office space.
Contrary to popular opinion, it was not always the youngest shying away from the office.
Ferguson said younger workers still living with their parents or sharing a house often wanted to be in the office for a better work environment and mentoring from more experienced colleagues.
“But the ones they are wanting to learn from are sitting at home in their nice offices,” she said.
Many people believed they get more done at home, but Ferguson thought busyness could be mistaken for productivity.
Ferguson said what could be a quick chat in the office could now be a lengthy back and forth coordination of available times followed by a 30-minute Zoom meeting.
“You might not be able to get time in someone’s diary for a number of days but if you were in the office together, you could grab them and resolve that problem pretty quickly,” she said.
Curtin University Professor Julia Richardson said managers needed a new set of skills when their direct reports were no longer a few steps away.
A key was the ability to communicate well in writing that can more easily be misinterpreted than a conversation.
Another hurdle was building a team culture when members didn’t always see each other.
“Some people struggle with that when they’re face to face,” she said.
Richardson, who specialises in career and human resources management, said a concern of younger employees looking for promotion was being forgotten about if they worked at home too often.
“The people who were promoted and not overlooked were the ones who were staying in touch with managers and with colleagues, making sure that they were visible.”
Richardson thought workers and companies would continue to experiment by trial and error to find the best set of working arrangements, and the answer will likely be different in every circumstance.
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Source: Thanks smh.com