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Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has gotten off to a sluggish start, hit by delays, vaccine shortages, and the latest curveball: new medical advice that Australians under 50 years old should not be given the AstraZeneca vaccine.
But what the vaccine rollout, alongside the dampened social distancing measures, does show is that Australia’s economy and its workforce is recovering.
But as things in Australia return to a new normal, it’s clear that the dynamics of the workplace have shifted.
So much changed during the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of the disease has dented not only economies across the world, but it has also changed the fairly mundane aspects of our daily lives.
Nowadays, the way we get to work, what the work space is, how it looks and even how we interact with colleagues and clients has had a major overhaul. As a result, leaders, across all industries are having to rethink how we work and what roles our work spaces should play to ensure a safe and productive work environment in a world which continues to face risks posed by COVID-19.
shift to a human-centred environment
For white collar workers, offices have always been the environment in which they operate and a central component to their company’s culture. The office is designed to encourage productivity and collaboration but as a result of the uptick in remote working, leaders are now forced to cultivate the attributes of the office within the homes of their employees. While supporting remote working was key throughout 2020, going forward for 2021, remaining agile will be paramount.
Why? Because as we have seen in Australia, things can change in an instant. States could go into lockdown at a moment's notice in response to another COVID-19 outbreak. Therefore, industry leaders need to be able to adapt to the waves of uncertainty and volatility which are predicted to continue until the COVID-19 vaccine is fully rolled out worldwide or the pandemic comes to a natural end.
So, what will this mean for the future of the workplace?
Organisations should try to achieve a human-centred workplace which integrates practices that leverage the best of both in person and virtual worlds, with a focus on bringing people together and creating an experience inherently more human.
Having experienced this large scale working-from-home experiment, many individuals may continue to see it as a viable choice for the future. On the other hand, some individuals may want to separate their work and personal life, and see the office as their preferred work environment. The individualistic nature of our society means that leaders will have to support employees to achieve the best outcome for the individual.
But, before it’s possible to create a new working utopia, it’s vital that first we understand employee needs.
According to Felicity Empson, human resources director at Randstad Australia, the best way to understand employee needs is to co-create solutions with the people who are doing the work.
“We need to trust our people as they know what it takes to get the best out of them. If they’re working remotely and getting their best work done but not in the office, this shouldn’t be overlooked,” she says.
reposition to a new style of workplace
With many workers now avoiding their commute, smaller numbers of employees working in the same spaces and CBDs emptying, the questions many organisations are asking themselves is ‘do we still need an expensive central office for all our staff’? ‘Could workplaces be in multiple smaller offices in multiple locations across the city or country instead?’
Businesses with a variety of locations can still provide the wellbeing, functionality and productivity required, but in a way that is suitable for the new COVID-19 normal.
Decentralised work locations could even be an attraction for top talent by providing them with more opportunity to choose where they live, perhaps in closer proximity to the people and places they love. And the benefits aren’t only for workers, there are also perks for organisations such as lower costs, increased presence in more locations and the ability to offer local expertises to customers.
David Owens, managing director of HR Partners, a Randstad company, argues that CBD offices with thousands of employees working for one company will become a thing of the past.
“Offices don’t need to be that big. They can be 40% smaller than what they were before. This will give an opportunity to companies who like to co-share,” he says.
David explains that changing the structure of the workplace is far more beneficial than getting rid of it all together and adopting remote working across the board.
The challenges, spontaneous encounters, coffee breaks and shared victories all nurture the soul of a company, he explains. The limitation and absence of synergies that are usually formed with face-to-face human interaction that unites a company and its workers will never be achieved with video technology.
“I personally believe that the richest inter-human exchanges are done face-to-face, whether it’s selling, persuading, committing, sharing ideas, creating ideas, or delivering honest communication,” David says.
But it’s not just the location and size of offices which are set to change.
In order to ensure the ongoing human behaviour and safety post-COVID, workplace designers are also prioritising hands-free and contactless pathways through offices using advanced technology. This includes things such as voice activations, facial recognition, sensor doors and smartphones when calling for the lift, in order to ensure employees avoid needlessly touching surfaces on their way to their desk.
Businesses can also look to implement desk book systems or a rostering type system to avoid conflict in desk space and reduce density of staff in certain areas.
Ensuring the health and safety of employers in the office is paramount, and by embracing these beneficial technologies, offices will become a destination for employees to feel comfortable, safe and productive. Not only that but it will enable more visitation and engagement within the workplace.
Simon Reiter, head of IT delivery at Aware Super, thinks that offices will change to become a central cultural hub where people will come in for big workshops and for mapping out and solving more complex problems. This may create more meeting places and collaborative zones.
“There should be guidelines in place for certain roles. This should be clearly and regularly communicated to all staff so there is no confusion or breakdown in procedures. Some roles may remain having to work 9-5 like call centres, but that doesn’t mean they have to come to the office. Although they would prefer to, leaders should develop guide rails and set dates and meetings if they want to come back, not rules,” Simon says.
mental health in the workplace
It’s no surprise to anyone that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant negative effect on the wellbeing and mental health of nearly all Australians.
Women have been disproportionately affected with 325,000 women becoming unemployed in April 2020, making up 55% of all the jobs lost .
But according to PWC’s Mental Health in The Age of COVID-19 research 2020, young Australians aged 16-34 are at the greatest risk of loneliness, with 42% reportedly feeling alone during the pandemic.
Aside from loneliness, stress and burnout is a very real problem as workers take less annual leave alongside undertaking a larger volume of work.
The isolation factor, which goes hand-in-hand with a lack of social engagement during the pandemic reinforces the need to push mental health reform forward.
Businesses will have to consider ways to protect and strengthen the mental health of their employees keeping in mind that the impact of the pandemic will likely go on a long while after we see it finally come to an end, whenever that may be.
Simon points out that in order to support employees at work, leaders should review how employee system programs are structured, and how they can better access mental wellness programs no matter how they are working.
“We have wellness tribes, walking clubs and discounted gym classes for staff, and when staff do these together with their peers, they build that team bond and culture helping them achieve better outcomes to pull through deadlines. Cultivating that for those at home is a challenge, and leaders have to ensure they provide everyone with the opportunities of wellness on different mediums,” he says. Interestingly, the Randstad Employer Brand Research 2020 also revealed a disconnect between employers and employees when it came to elements of the workplace that could impact on an employee's mental health.
Maintaining a good work-life balance ranked the second highest aspect that employees look for and value in their career, followed by a good work environment. These factors, however, are ranked much lower for employers, and this creates a call to action for new ways that employers can support employee mental health during uncertain and volatile times.
adopting a hybrid workforce
Traditionally, it has been easy for managers to train, provide performance feedback and view results for their employees in a central workspace.
But the newly adapted future workplace, which comprises remote working with a decentralised workplace, means businesses will have to consider adopting a hybrid remote workforce in order to ensure employees get access to mentoring no matter where they are. Once the office transitions to a workspace which is half virtual and half face-to-face it will become much more challenging to manage and ensure fairness and engagement.
But ensuring and enabling accessibility across the organisation; whether it’s access to an office space, a laptop to work from, or various programs to further develop through virtual means, will definitely help give managers the tools they need to increase productivity and professional development for their employees.
Another trend that has been accelerated by the COVID-19 lockdown is that managers should measure performance not by employee hours but the amount of work produced. This means that workers can be more flexible with their time, perhaps working alternative hours to a traditional 9-5 job, so long as the work is completed effectively.
In fact, Felicity says that this remote working and improved flexibility is one of the silver linings to come out of the pandemic.
“Employees always felt an immense pressure to turn up to work at 8:30am in the morning and sign off at 5pm that evening. Employees should have the ability to say they’ve done a great job, regardless of the hours,” she says.
Felicity emphasises that the future of the office should run on an “outcome over hours” basis, and companies should be clear about what they need to do and deliver on that instead of how it is done.
In other words, self-directed teams working from home are able to drive results by demonstrating that work is about mastering tasks and achieving goals, rather than staying at an office all day.
The work of the future, then, will be something we do, rather than a place we go.
embracing a technology driven world
The rapid technological transformation that many organisations have had to go through has accelerated the transformation of how and where we work.
Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends found that technology will augment and supplement work but will not replace human work. In fact, humans and technology are much more powerful together than either can be on their own. Virtual reality (VR) is going to become a big component of our future work experiences and a powerful driver for interconnectivity. It will have the potential to connect people across geographies, time zones and have the strong ability to drive business performance across a boundary-free world.
Aware Super’s Simon agrees: “VR will be good for staff onboarding. For mining companies, they can virtually transport their staff easily to the mining site and do a virtual walk around on top of the book learning side of things. For traditional offices, VR can be leveraged as a digital twin. Staff can view company awards on the wall and gain that cultural feel of the office.”
into the roaring 2020s
It’s clear then that the future leader will have to be someone adept at using digital technology to provide a workplace that fosters productivity, creative innovation, learning and interactions wherever their employees may be.
And David stresses the role that business leaders need to take to operate effectively in an unprecedented time and unpredictable future.
“There’s never been a better time for leaders to demonstrate human centricity, empathy, understanding and connection with their teams. Onto the future and a post-COVID-19 world, the business leader has to demonstrate versatility, agility, connectivity, and a willingness to experiment to trail blaze,” he says.
The most important thing for businesses and leaders to remember is that at the very heart of the future office space lies the employee.
Leaders must do everything they can to ensure a positive employee experience, regardless of whether they’re in the office, working from home, in a cafe or even from the beach. Humans excel in navigating uncertainty and complexity, and by coming together, whether physically distanced or in person and showing greater concern for each other, the future of the office will become a productive and collaborative one.
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