Before the COVID-19 pandemic, flexible work was a benefit that a lucky few employees, or especially innovative employers, had the luxury of experiencing. Yet within a year, lockdowns leaving little choice but to work from home has changed the way we think. Going back to the office 9-to-5, five days a week, suddenly feels like a step in the wrong direction.
The way we work has radically altered and we now face a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine the social contract, rethink work and explore better ways of creating value. It isn’t about everyone working from home or the office, but instead about defining a new, hybrid world.
So how can businesses realise the enormous potential that hybrid work offers? A new report by PwC Australia, Changing Places: How hybrid working is rewriting the rule book, offers insight into how companies can realise the benefits of this new state of play.
It’s clear that in Australia, but likely elsewhere too, workers want a hybrid working future. A recent global survey conducted by PwC found that only 10 percent of respondents wanted to return to a traditional work environment. Seventy-four percent of Australian respondents reported that they wanted a mix of face-to-face and remote working of differing degrees.
It’s time for business then to take stock, make sure that employee sentiment is truly understood alongside the challenges, goals and insights needed to co-create the best workplace going forward. Knowing how people want to use different spaces means that business can reimagine what the ‘office’ looks like and strategically marry physical and non-physical elements to cater for where employees want to be to do what tasks — for example, better tech for solo virtual work, more collaboration hubs in the physical office, wellness spaces for mental health or war rooms for strategic work.
It’s important when planning to recognise that while most Australians want a hybrid workplace, there will be differences due to generation, job seniority and gender. For instance, 47 percent of men would prefer to work primarily in the office compared to 36 percent of women.1
Central to determining what employees want will be the use of both quantitative and qualitative data. Point-in-time qualitative sentiment should be routinely gauged, for instance by the use of online surveys, alongside behavioural quantitative data on how physical space is being used. For instance, how many employees are swiping into the office and at what times? Are meeting rooms at capacity or half full? Understanding the occupancy demands will allow organisations to scale down or change footprints where needed — and savings can be directly invested in better experiences at the office and at home.
In any model, leaders need to keep in mind how the world is affecting employee wellbeing. Employees haven’t only grappled with COVID-19, they’ve also faced the challenges of lockdown and reduced social interaction. For some, this has led to loneliness, isolation and burnout as the lines between work and home have blurred.
Hybrid working therefore brings complexity. Workloads have the potential to increase as virtual work necessitates longer and more frequent meetings. Productivity suffers in response. Without intentional action to improve mental health and wellbeing, the opportunity hybrid work holds to boost engagement, connection and productivity could easily be lost.
Businesses should ensure the appropriate policies, programs, and safety nets are in place to manage and mitigate the risks associated with wellbeing. A wellness strategy should reflect an in-depth understanding of the nuances of the workforce and the environmental impacts of working across multiple places. Additionally, invest in skills at executive levels and below to promote and support mental health and wellbeing.
Technology can also provide assistance in promoting wellbeing. Self-served automation of knowledge via a chatbot, for example, could help new employees familiarise themselves with a new company, finding the information they would normally absorb from observation or team chatter such as who reports into what team, where to go for HR help, or how to access training.
For all staff, tech that enables people to see who is coming into the office on what days will help enhance physical connectivity and the ability for informal social catch ups. Social network and chat tools could provide further connection when staff are working remotely, making up for the loss of water cooler chat. Finally, the things that allow people to express their individuality virtually do matter, even something as small as being able to choose a virtual background in a video call.
Leadership is more critical than ever in a hybrid way of working. Yet 33 percent of Australian CEOs have no plans to change their long-term investment in leadership and talent development in the next three years.
Traditional, established leadership behaviours are increasingly outdated and the pull for leaders to go back to the way things were — using the same levers and behaviours to inspire and engage — is strong, but ultimately not fit for purpose. Instead, hybrid working requires leaders adapt their style of leadership to balance rational behaviours with emotional needs, make data-driven decisions, and cater to different segments of the workforce, creating an employee experience that is compelling regardless of where people work.
Key to prioritising the needs and motivations of their teams, leaders need to understand which emotional needs require the most attention (for example, hope, connection, achievement, expression, belonging or learning) so that they can co-create solutions that meet them.
To do so will mean being fluent in the technologies that employees use — and as comfortable in the virtual spaces they create as in the physical office. Digital upskilling will be necessary for those at the top, regardless of whether they work in the office themselves, as their teams will likely want to mix in-office with at-home work and can’t suffer a loss of leadership attention for making that choice. Executives and managers may find that they need to shift focus from ‘control of work’ to being the key enabler in team collaboration.
Knowing where to start to make the most of a hybrid workplace during and post-pandemic is difficult. However there are steps that businesses can take to ensure they’re heading in the right direction. Organisations should start by aligning leadership on the opportunity ahead, then engaging their people and their expectations. Assess the current maturity state of the organisation, plot the road ahead in order to prioritise the journey and invest in leadership in order to get there.
Leaders, and the policies they embody, need to be up to the task of managing dispersed workers while understanding their obligations, especially as industrial relations missteps can result in costly setbacks. Nonetheless, with careful consideration and in partnership with HR, legal and tax teams businesses shouldn’t be afraid to experiment.
While the disruption brought by COVID-19 has presented many complex challenges, and more often than not, created more questions than answers, it is clear that the future of work is hybrid — and the opportunity to create a workplace that is better for everyone is here. It’s time to embrace it.
To take your next steps towards hybrid working, download the full report Changing Places: How hybrid working is rewriting the rule book for detailed recommendations on how to rebuild, redefine and reimagine the future of work.
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