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Steven Worrall (Microsoft Australia)

17 June 2021

Exploring the Future of Work

Exploring the future of work with PwC Australia - conversation with Steven Worrall (Microsoft Australia) 

In this episode with Managing Director of Microsoft Australia, Steven Worrall, we hear about the state of technological adoption in Australia and the digital skills of Australian workers. As well as the impact of working from home on employee health and wellbeing, and tips on fostering collaboration and community across physical and digital environments. 


Episode transcript

Ben Hamer: Technology has been a massive game changer when it comes to where and how we work, and now off the back of Australia's largest work from home experiment, we can't imagine a time where we did our jobs without it. So how do we take advantage of the benefits that technology has on offer so that we can be more effective, connected, happy and productive? Well, you go right to the top of one of the most recognisable brands in Australia, if not the world, and that's exactly what I did. Join me as I chat with Steve Worrall, Managing Director of Microsoft Australia, where we cover topics like the state of technological adoption in Australia and the digital skills of Australian workers. Whether or not we should have a robot tax. The impact of working from home on employee health, wellbeing and social connection. And some tips and tricks for fostering collaboration, culture and community across physical and digital environments. My name is Ben Hamer, and you're listening to the final episode of Season two of Exploring the future of work with PwC Australia. 

Ben Hamer: I'm joined by Steve Worrall, the Managing Director for Microsoft Australia. Welcome on board, Steve. 

Steven Worrall: G’day, Ben. 

Ben Hamer: We'll get straight into things. And to start with, Steve, can you talk a little bit about how Microsoft was impacted by COVID-19?

Steven Worrall: Yeah, look, I think, Ben, first of all, there was the personal implications. And the first and most important impact, has been still is the wellbeing of every member of the team, as I'm sure you experience, I know certainly from many of our clients, there was just so many different reactions to the pandemic, at least in the early days, in terms of what did this mean for each of us? What did it mean for our families? What did it mean for our loved ones? What did it mean for people that were family members and loved ones overseas? And so I think massive impact there, thinking through how best to help each of us then deal with those pressures and challenges. And then I think is you turn to the professional side to sort of, the work side, we were in a better position than most, I suspect, if only because of the use of the technology that has become such a part of so many industries and so many businesses over the last 18 months. You know, up until, you know, coming into the pandemic for us, work was always the thing that you did, not a place that you went to. So I think in a way that helped prepare us. But the personal side, profound impact then. And we're still dealing with those impacts, to be fair.

Ben Hamer: Absolutely. And what you've just been talking about, I mean, technology being a huge part of the future of work with how we work, where we work and how we collaborate as well. What are some of the key technological advancements that you think will shape the future of work over the next five years?

Steven Worrall: Well, we've seen a lot of them already, and it's it could be as simple as technology like Zoom or Teams, where we're now learning to connect and communicate with each other no matter where members of our team might be or family members might be, for that matter, around the world. That obviously is going to continue to evolve and to provide new ways for us to to connect with each other. So I think that's a very obvious example. But then, you know, if you think about the other implications for other industries, we saw a massive increase in the use of telehealth, for example, or our supermarkets had massive increases in the demand for online shopping. The services that allow the digital services that allow telehealth to be provided to, or for our major retailers to scale up so that they could meet that massive demand that typically provided in the cloud. That cloud capability, I think, has been instrumental. In the past, you might have had to build that capability yourselves. And how do you think about an organisation trying to respond, you know, in a matter of hours or days, trying to build the capability to scale up digital infrastructure? It just wouldn't have happened. And so in one sense, the pandemic happening as it did well after the evolution of the cloud, as we now know it, I think has helped facilitate our response and recovery through what has been an incredibly difficult period.

Ben Hamer: Well, it sounds like we're in a pretty good position in terms of where we are now. But then thinking about the future, the next five, 10 years, how do you think Australian organisations are positioned to capitalise on some of these trends in the emerging technology that we can expect to see?

Steven Worrall: Well, I think we're positioned well, but the work is all ahead of us, quite obviously. And so we've dealt with to a large extent, the health crisis. The health crisis is still with us. To be fair. We still have lockdown's happening across the country and there are still issues, quite obviously. But if you compare us to other nations around the world, there's no doubt that Australia has navigated through the health crisis better than most. The economic recovery is still ahead of us, early signs are really positive. Our economic outlook, we know, is comparing very favorably to most of the developed nations around the world. And yet we had a series of challenges that we took into this crisis. We can't forget about the transition of our economy. So we think about decarbonising Australia's economy. The changing shape of our workforce, when you think about our industry composition related to decarbonisation, is how do we start to migrate our workforce into industries of the future and provide opportunities for those in work to navigate to new roles? And of course, how do we help find great new roles for people entering the workforce? These are massive challenges that were with us well before the pandemic arrived. And I think, you know, we've been able to navigate well through to this point. Technology has played an important role and it offers a way forward. But the work for us to reshape that workforce, to reshape our economy. Yes. Is very much in front of us.

Ben Hamer: And a bit of a curveball because you're talking about the intersection of human and digital. And I wonder, what are your thoughts on what we're seeing? Some other countries start to implement things around a robot tax where there might be a net deficit in terms of job displacement as a result of automation, organisations are then paying a tax or a tariff. Do you have any views on that?

Steven Worrall: Yeah, look, I think there have been those conversations, there has been a conversation about a universal income and other social policies that I think are worthy of discussion. For me, I think there's so much potential here in Australia for us to navigate our way and to think about how our industries can and should pivot as we think about the next five to 10 years and our role here in Asia. We are in such an amazingly fortunate position and have been for the last 30 years. When you think about the economic growth track record that we have. But how do we set ourselves up to drive that same track record forward? I think the opportunities are there in terms of if you start looking at different industry verticals. In energy, you know, we have such amazing reserves of renewable energy sources. And I'm not the only person to make this observation, but we as a nation are perhaps not making as much progress in moving towards that renewable future as we might. The opportunity is still there for us. And that's an area of great interest for Microsoft, because we work closely with CSIRO and a number of our clients on how we might ensure that we make that future possible. But those transitions are available to us in many industry segments. And so that's the question. I think Ben, those social policies are worthy of consideration. But I think there's so many other ways in which we can and need to think about our workforce creating those new jobs of the future -technology-dependent in many cases. But that will also help us to set our next generation up for the sort of economic prosperity that we have enjoyed over the last 30 years.

Ben Hamer: Yeah, there are some great considerations for us to keep top of mind within this discussion, but I am keen to move the dial now to something you mentioned at the start of our conversation, which was employee health and wellbeing, because we released some research recently, Changing Places, which shone the spotlight on the health and wellbeing agenda, particularly because of the impact of hybrid working on things like social connections, workload and the blurred lines between home and the workplace. Can you talk a little bit more around Microsoft's experience on this one?

Steven Worrall: We recently performed or completed a work trend index, which was a massive global report that looked at these issues across many, many countries, in many industries. And there were a couple of macro conclusions that came out or themes that came out of that report that were interesting and surprising in some cases. There's no question many of the themes that you've just touched on were present in terms of the fatigue that many reported from constant engagement through a digital platform. The idea of getting up in the morning and clicking on to Zoom or Teams and then being there 12 hours later clicking off and then that blurring between work and home, that those things were very, very clear. What we also saw, which was interesting, was this divide between leadership and early arrivals into organisations. So those who perhaps have been on board for three to five years. Very different view of the experience of the last two years, broadly speaking - and these are the reports available for anyone who's interested - but broadly speaking, leaders had a more positive experience through this period than those that were early in career. And there are lots of reasons for that. But one of them very obviously, is that early in your career, one of the one of the most important elements of all of your onboarding is getting to meet people and having that engagement with team members, elders, if you like, across the organisation that can help show you the ropes and can pass on skills through those informal conversations that will happen in team meetings, during a client call, during a situation when you're working on a project together. And so we've been thinking very deeply about that issue. We're also thinking deeply about how do we manage that, that divide between work and at home. And so through evolutions in our platform, we have a Teams platform, of course, but a new digital engagement platform that will be rolling out called Viva, which will start to think more deeply about the digital employee experience that we can provide and optimising that in a way that addresses many of the concerns that we've touched on here. But also acknowledging that there's something very important about social interaction and about in-person engagement and ensuring that we balance the use of digital capability with that human interaction because we know that's so important for so many people, not just those who are early in career.

Ben Hamer: Yeah, I think that really resonates in terms of some research released at the end of last year that was called Thinking Beyond, and we saw that a third of people were really concerned about career progression while working remotely, because this whole thing of if you can't see me, how can you know that I'm adding value and doing my job? And similarly, that absence of the observational learning that you're talking about, one of the other things we’re also saying as well, between the more junior people or fresh to the organisation and as you put it your word, not mine, ‘elders’, is that the strength of networks. So when you have really strong networks, you know who to go to to to ask the right questions, to get the job done when you're new to the organisation, or particularly if you started during that, you don't have those relationships and it can really impact your ability to be productive and efficient in your work.

Steven Worrall: We're also seeing just on top of that Ben, through this report that networks are shrinking through this time. Engagement over a digital platform tends to be more transactional. You have a job to do. You've got a task to complete, an issue to resolve. You set up a call. You have the call, you close the call. You move on. In that transactional environment, productivity, ironically, has improved in the first period of the pandemic. And yet networks have contracted and the number of informal interactions, not surprisingly, and the number of introductions to other members of the team who may not be directly involved in that moment, in that issue, have obviously reduced. And so the unintended consequences of the moment we find ourselves in now with the use of digital technology is the, for many, the dominant way in which people have interacted has been for many, the sense that my network is diminishing. I'm being more transactional, perhaps I'm being more effective. But the long term implications of this aren't really understood. And that's why I think we have to be very thoughtful about the balance between continuing to use digital interactions as the primary way in which we engage. And then this idea of getting back physically together again to ensure that we balance out some of those unintended consequences that are bubbling to the surface.

Ben Hamer: Yeah, we're definitely seeing that piece around the quality and social interactions diminishing in some regard because everything you were just saying, but even the littlest of things like if I need to to ask a quick question rather than just turning around and saying, ‘Hey, Steve, what do you think?’ I put a 30 minute meeting in your diary. And so it means that it's not only a formal interaction, but workload and the cost of coordination just goes up as well. So, Steve, I'm keen to now sort of still stay on the topic of wellbeing, but get your thoughts on something that came up in a podcast we did with Alex Badenoch from Telstra recently. And I'd asked Alex, and I'm keen to ask you the same question here, around technology and whether or not it impacts wellbeing in a positive or a negative light. So does technology actually impact our wellbeing adversely? You know, this whole thing around, we're always connected or is technology actually an enabler to a more healthier, balanced life. What are your thoughts on that one?

Steven Worrall: It's a tool. Simply put, it's a tool that we use to perform tasks and to help us in organisations or in our family life to connect and to share information. And in that context, then it can be both. It can be both a platform that allows you to do all the things you need to do in an efficient way. And I haven't met anyone over the last 18 months that hasn't said that Zoom and Teams or these sorts of platforms have played an instrumental role in allowing them to continue to engage either professionally or personally. I honestly haven't, because it's been so core to what it has meant to keep going over the last 18 months. At the same time, for the reasons we've talked about, fatigue, this blurring of lines between work and home, these are issues that are real, cannot be ignored, and the unintended consequences of using a tool without thinking through what are the, what's the other side of this coin, I think can lead to impacts that aren’t positive. And so part of the work that we're doing, this report I mentioned the evolution of our thinking is to ensure that we into Viva our new platform we're embedding things like a virtual commute. As odd as this may sound, the formality of saying, you know, you're sitting down to a 12 hour day, let's just ensure that there's a half hour break out of either side, purposely inserted into the diary. So it doesn't get taken up by Ben calling to ask that question of Steven that he wanted to ask and that you might then choose to use that in whatever way makes sense. In this particular case, we've got a partnership with Headspace to provide meditation and other distractions that you might use during that period, but you could use it for your favourite podcast. You could read the newspaper, you can use it in whatever way makes sense. But this is a formality. There's a period where I'm transitioning from work, from walking out of the kitchen or talking to the kids or my partner to now getting into the work mode. And so I think we've got to be thoughtful about this tool and how it's impacting how we work and what implications it's having for both our physical and mental wellbeing.

Ben Hamer: And talking about technology, we're talking about the way it can support hybrid working, particularly over the last 12 to 24 months. And as you said at the start of the podcast, you are a bit of a first mover in this space in the sense that you already believed that work was something that you did not a place that you did it. And so it could be done across multiple places and spaces, which is quite a progressive view in the context of the broader Australian labor market. Can you just talk a little bit more around what underpins or supports that view around work getting done in those various places and spaces?

Steven Worrall: Part of it, of course, is the role we play as a technology provider. And then the simple fact that we're using Teams ourselves all day, every day meant for us people living their lives, managing their personal situations and managing the demands at work often meant that starting at home in the morning and then coming to the office in the afternoon or starting the office in the morning and looking after the kids in the afternoon and then continuing work later in the evening, that was just part of who we were and what we did. And so we were lucky, privileged to be in the position we were. It was also Ben, part of the reality that when this hit we were a digital first responder. There are so many heroes across Australia, in our hospitals, in our schools, in our supermarkets, in our government departments that supported every Australian through the most challenging time that any of us have ever experienced in our life. And we were in the privileged position to be a digital first responder, providing the capability of the tools that allowed all of those Australians and many of those Australians to then continue to do the things that they needed to do. Often times we were working it out as we went, but that put us in a unique position, I think gave us a unique perspective on the power of technology. But at the same time, we want to stay thoughtful about then what's the steady state that we arrive at when we navigate our way through the health crisis? And how do we get to a point where we're not then inflicting upon ourselves unintended consequences that might come from an overuse of a particular mode of working? And so that's what we think a lot about.

Ben Hamer: And what's your view on the level of digital capability or the foundational digital literacy of Australians to actually leverage and take advantage of this technology?

Steven Worrall: It's strong. I think we've seen that in the last 12 months. And I think about meetings, you know, discussions I have with CEOs of our major clients. And, you know, in many cases, they talk about how do we bottle what we've seen in the last 12 months in our organisation, because it's been being confronted by this crisis has brought us together in a way that it's allowed us to achieve things in 12 months that we've been working on for three years. And so to your question, the digital capability is strong. I think the biggest issue here, Ben, is just the shortage of skills that we have. And there isn't a client I talk to, and certainly true in my business, we don't have enough of the right skills in the right places and we need more and more and more digital capability. So, I think we're in a good spot. I think we've got strong capability. We've seen this rapid adoption of technology across our economy that's helped us in so many ways. And yet we know that that curve is only going to continue to increase. And we as a collective need to do much, much more to bring more people into the tech industry, to build more digital capability.

Ben Hamer: I love what you were talking about as well when you were saying, you know, we really want to try and bottle some of the good bits that came from the COVID-19 experience because it accelerated a lot of positive transformation in the workforce. And it makes me think about this tension that's kind of manifesting at the moment around return to workplace, because we're seeing some organisations that are really supporting the hybrid move. And then there are others who kind of just want to go back to the way things were, and they're trying to push the return to office, mandating days in the office some five days a week. And our Changing Places research showed that only 10 percent of Australians want to work five days a week in an office. So what advice would you have to organisations or other CEOs that are grappling with this exact kind of topic at the moment?

Steven Worrall: The first story, of course, is that different industries have different needs and there are some roles that have to be performed in what will call the office. But, you know, you think about Coles and Woolworths, right? All of their teams turning up to distribution centers across the country, keeping our food supply network working. You need that team to turn up all day, every day. There's no single answer to your question, but I think starting point has to be an acknowledgement that there are some industries where being more flexible, depending more on hybrid approaches, is more possible than others. So I think I just acknowledge that reality. Second thought, though, is I think declarations about what the future is going to look like. We're all going to be back in the office again. We're all going to be working from home. I just think they're heroic that anyone could foresee that that's going to be the right way, because for me, it's very much an evolving scenario. And declarations about, well, we're all going to do X well in this moment, given the uncertainty and all the concern that's still around, I, I think we've got a long way to go. And I think the best advice I would offer is let's just be thoughtful. Look at the industry context. Look at your customers and your supply chain's expectations. Think about your employees. What is their experience like through all of this? And then look at the right method. I think, you know, our industry, you know, just to say it's always going to be hybrid. It's always working from home or wherever you are doesn't really help progress this conversation.

Ben Hamer: Something else that our clients find quite challenging is how to go about meaningfully collaborating and building culture in geographically dispersed environments and virtual environments. And so do you have any creative ways or just general advice around how you can foster a sense of culture and community across digital mediums and multiple spaces?

Steven Worrall: Two thoughts that come to mind. There're lots of techniques I've seen, but two thoughts that come to mind. One is we've got an insight into our workmates personal life in a way that we've never had before. You know, in fact, in this report that we completed, this is about 15 or 16 per cent of the team of the people who responded, saying they have now met the pets of their workmates. We've had insights into people's kitchens. We've had insights into their family life. We've built this intimacy in a way that I don't think existed before across that scale, across so many different parts of our business. And so the first thought then, I think, would be to develop that, to leverage that, to recognise and acknowledge it and embrace it as part of one of the positives that comes out of this. And you can build morale and culture and teamwork across geographic distances when you just start with the basics, which is we're all humans dealing with the most challenging time of our lives and connecting at that level, whether it's around pets or around family or around interests and hobbies. We found that to be a very effective way to address that, that topic. Another idea that came out of - I'm involved with the corporate mental health alliance - and another idea that came out of that group when we got together last year at the beginning of one of the lockdowns in Melbourne was just postcode gatherings. You know, we saw a number of communities who were in lockdown, weren't allowed to stray more than five kilometres from their homes. But we then started suggesting to the team, share your postcode, because if you're in a particular postcode, you can't get together with teammates you might not have known that live in that same area. And we saw groups of our teams getting together in different parts of the country, going for a walk, doing whatever was within the health guidelines. But that was another little tactic that we saw was quite effective.

Ben Hamer: I have to say, my dog, Schnitty has become somewhat famous while working remotely, and I'm not mad about it. So Steve, it gets a little bit more complex when there are some people who are in the office and others who are online. And as people start to return to the workplace, we're expecting to see this proximity bias play out where those who are in person are intentionally or unintentionally favored over those who might be online. How do you think we can get on top of this one so we don't say disproportionate impacts on those working remotely?

Steven Worrall: Think it's such a massive question, because what we've realised more so now than at any point is that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. And it offers an answer to one of our earlier questions around how do we build more capacity and digital capability. We do that in Australia by acknowledging the massive amounts of talent we have all around the country that aren't currently working in the tech industry in a big city. And so I think it's a really important question you posed. The way to do it, I think it's to be thoughtful about how you then implement a hybrid environment. And this is why we're working so hard on our on our employee engagement platform, because we want to make sure that it provides all of the opportunity for anyone, regardless of whether they're in the office sitting next to the boss or whether they're in another part of the country at home to be able to engage and to connect and to contribute in an equal way. And so I think there's a being thoughtful about how you use technology and how you implement your hybrid policies. And then I think it's about conversation and I think it's about leaders opening up about this conversation, putting it on the table and openly being thoughtful about how we are being inclusive in our work practices. This has been a big issue for us for the last 30 years. How do we become a more, as business leaders and businesses more broadly, how do we become more inclusive in our operations? And this is just the latest challenge in ensuring that those practices are embedded and that we're honing our skills because there's so much more for us to learn and to improve.

Ben Hamer: So, Steve, while a lot of organisations are rethinking their office footprint, Microsoft Australia has now gone and just opened a new facility. How has that played out for you?

Steven Worrall: Really, really well Ben. We opened it early this month, it was amazing to see everyone and I mean everyone turned up to come in and check out the new digs. We're in North Sydney and it's an amazing, amazing space. But I think for me, what it's highlighted is the need for physical proximity and the idea that the workplace is alive and well. There's so much to be gained by getting teams together. The energy that I saw when we opened was palpable and the response from the team has been overwhelming. For me, this is core to the idea of focusing on our employees, making this the very best place to work and creating the best experience for them. That has to be both a combination of the digital and the physical. And so you can tell from my answer that when we think about the workplace of the future, it is very much a hybrid with a heavy emphasis on both.

Ben Hamer: Steve that comes to the end of our time together. But I'm not going to let you get off scot-free without answering our quick fire questions. So are you ready to get underway?

Steven Worrall: As ready as I'll be.

Ben Hamer: Alrighty. When you hear the term future of work, what one word springs to mind?

Steven Worrall:  Evolving.

Ben Hamer: If you could make one change to today's workforce, what would it be?

Steven Worrall: I want to bring Ginger and Mayer, my two golden retrievers into the office. And that means you could bring Schnitty into yours.

Ben Hamer: What is the biggest opportunity for organisations in your industry over the next five years when it comes to the future of work?

Steven Worrall: I think its emphasis and focus on employee wellbeing. I think mental health and the implications of this time we've been through are going to become more and more important. And that's where we're focusing so much of our time and effort.

Ben Hamer: What's the biggest lesson you've learned as a leader from the COVID-19 period?

Steven Worrall: It came from, I'm going to name drop here, but Professor Genevieve Bell from the ANU, when she said early on, “we can't totalise the experience”. And she was pointing to the reality that every single person is having a very unique reaction to this moment. As a leader, keeping that front of mind is so important.

Ben Hamer: And yes or no, is the office dead?

Steven Worrall: No.

Ben Hamer: Well, on that note, Steve, we're done and dusted for season two. And I would like to extend a massive thank you for joining us on the podcast today.

Steven Worrall: My pleasure.

Ben Hamer: Thanks for joining us and listening to this episode. Head on over to where you find our latest report, Changing Places: How hybrid working is rewriting the rule book. My name is Ben Hamer and you've been listening to Exploring the Future of work with PwC Australia. Thanks for joining us and goodbye for now.

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Dr Ben Hamer

Lead, Future of Work, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 437 159 517

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