The Covid -19 pandemic has been nothing short of a monumental experiment. Within weeks, workplaces were forced into changes that would normally take years to implement. Reactions to the current state of work have been as varied as the experiences of the people going through it. Accounts range from horror stories to fairy tales and everything in between.  Organisations are now reflecting on this time and considering what they take from this experiment. There are questions circulating regarding whether work from home is the new norm, and if our CBDs will reduce in size as companies change the function and role of the physical office.

The concern with this is whether the changes being made are the right ones, or whether the current scramble to make radical changes to organisational operating, structural and cultural models is a knee jerk reaction based on a short-term situation.

Is what you see is all there is? Diversity in decision making.

The experience has undoubtedly shifted entrenched mindsets about flexible working. While there has been a major upheaval to ways of working in the face of an emergency, the responses so far have been based on limited data collected over a three to four-month period. Richard Claydon, an organisational culture and management expert emphasises “working from home” is not the same as “being at your home, trying to work during a global pandemic”.

Despite the huge number of surveys being conducted to gauge how staff feel about working from home, the key piece of information missing from this analysis is how people will feel about being in the same situation in six or 12 or 24 months’ time. What will the social, mental, and physical implications be? And how will these impact organisations?

Leaders making decisions need to be conscious of the entire ecosystem in which their staff both work and live, such as:

  • Home environment and the pressures associated with this, such as childcare or shared living arrangements
  • Where they live, the surrounding amenity, transport, and community infrastructure
  • Home internet and technology access

In many ways, the office democratises the workplace experience by providing all staff that work for an organisation with access to the same facilities and resources in that environment. In comparison, the demographics of the majority of Australian chief executives officers suggests that they are more likely to have a dedicated work space set up at home and that they are less likely to be working with small children in the house or be located on the suburban outskirts with limited community infrastructure and amenity.

Leaders making decisions using limited data, and through the lens of their own experience, risk missing the diverse range of factors that influence the working from home experience and, as a result, understanding the role the office really plays in peoples’ lives.

How many of their staff come to the office because it offers a better working environment than home?

In an extension of this discussion, Covid’s impact on gender imbalance in the context of caring and domestic duties must be considered. While flexible work has been around in various forms for some time until now, these policies have been accessed more frequently by women.

Recent German research shows how flexible work targeted at men equated to home-based overtime on work-related duties, but for women it resulted in increased domestic duties and home-based childcare . This pattern has remained during Covid with evidence from the higher education sector showing publication rates by women have dropped as they take on home child-care as well as assisting their students.

As greater numbers of people work from home, these issues need to be understood in depth to ensure workplace changes continue to foster a sense of community and belonging, and not create a greater divide.

While video platforms can provide a degree of interpersonal connectivity, whether this is sustainable in an environment where most staff are working from home is a question worth exploring further. Kate Murphy’s article Why Zoom is Terrible explores a variety of functional, cognitive, and psychological issues associated with the use of video conferencing rather than face-to-face interaction.

What are the right questions?

The wide-ranging reactions to the current state of work are understandable. It’s human nature to seek control and assurance in the face of uncertainty. Allowing people greater autonomy to make decisions about when, where, and how they work has benefits in terms of productivity, engagement, and satisfaction. It could even be possible that the increased autonomy that people have experienced through being able to work from home has provided a counter to some of the broader uncertainty being felt because of Covid-19.

The fact that most businesses have been checking in with staff during the pandemic through surveys and other means recognises this and, while they have provided some insights for businesses, many surveys are quantitative, consisting of closed end questions, such as ratings and satisfaction scales.

These are relatively easy to interpret and give quick results, as well as providing benchmark data to monitor changes over time. However, this data is not enough given the complex issue issues being faced and the diversity of individual experience.

Trying to apply a “one size fits all” solution is highly unlikely to be successful and poor implementation risks creating significant problems elsewhere. It is important that the questions being asked are honestly curious about how people are feeling now, and what their challenges are outside of a functional work set up. This will help develop the most responsive policies.

In a study of 5000 office workers by Phrasia, researchers mapped open-ended feedback about working from home. This type of data provides a much deeper insight into how people are coping with the results showing the following themes:

What People Like… What People Don’t Like…
Flexibility

Focus

Freedom

Loneliness

Overwhelm

Loss of motivation

Loss of purpose and gratification

What was obvious from the study was that while working from home allowed more freedom, flexibility and focus there were also restrictions on that freedom based on personal circumstances. Home working arrangements were not necessarily suitable, from having inadequate furniture through to having to use a closet for online meetings and calls. Feelings of being overwhelmed came from the blurring of the line between home and work life, with little time or space or transition between the two, something generally provided by the commute to and from work.

Staff also disliked that traditional working styles were applied to working from home, with the expectation to be at work and have an online presence between 9am and 5pm as the standard day.

Claydon emphasises “Staff cannot achieve flexibility or freedom with a digital version of old-school management watching over their shoulders”.

Reports show employee monitoring software sales are up by 300 per cent since Covid. People previously had control over their home lives –  now work and management intrudes into this private and autonomous space.

Managing knee jerk reactions, or fundamental change?

Before Covid, a transition to different work practices, including flexible and activity based working, involved an extended period of staff engagement and feedback.  Major organisations including CBA, Telstra and Woodside all took their staff through comprehensive change management programs to ensure that people were aware of workplace changes and how they would impact them. The limited amount of discussion around ongoing change management as part of Covid is disquieting.

In managing workplace change the maintenance of a cohesive organisational culture and a sense of belonging is equally as important as the physical space.

The role of the organisational grapevine in the transfer and reinforcement of this culture is critical and occurs predominantly through face-to-face interactions between staff. Even if the office becomes a place primarily for meetings, there still needs to be digital or physical space to enable social and unstructured time.

We still need social unstructured time

While measuring tangible elements such as productivity and output is important from a time and cost perspective, using the same parameters to assess the impact on staff is unlikely to produce positive outcomes.

The quality and the quantity of the data is of equal importance to the interpretation and application of the information that is collected. The nature of the current situation requires management to be prepared to change their view and imagined solutions.

It is critical for organisations to understand that there is no one size fits all approach within the business any more than there is outside of it.

Conclusion

Organisational responses to work during, and increasingly, post-Covid have been varied but the push by many organisations to implement sweeping changes to how people work should be approached with caution.

That many staff have now been given greater autonomy to decide when, where and how they work has been a positive development and one that organisations should rightly be able to capitalise on. However, this also needs to be balanced against the important cultural, social, and physical roles that offices play.

Headlines claim that the pandemic will turn the focus towards optimising employee experience. Within this, there is a real risk to productivity and culture from the removal of the office, particularly if this is done without understanding employee experience in depth and replacing the office with other well-developed initiatives.

Boundaries and the maintenance of expectations is essential in this research. For instance, don’t ask for staff ideas on the perfect workplace arrangement if there is no intention (or budget) in place to make some changes. It risks raising hopes that change is coming when it isn’t. Ensure there is some objective independence to the research to remove pre-conceived bias on what staff need. When administering a survey, or other form of research, communicate the results to staff and be clear on what can and cannot be addressed. Prior to moving away from a 1:1 desk ratio, carefully consider the message being sent to staff when the reason for the mass emptying of offices in March 2020 was a virus that is highly transmissible through surfaces.

Once the right methods of engagement are established, it is possible to measure how things change internally over time. Every organisation is different. This means staff will have a different level of trust impacting the information they share, so the types of questions and methods need to be tailored to the organisation. It is important to not get too caught up in external trends and lose sight of what staff within the organisation are saying.

Finally, context is critical. A global pandemic forcing people into quarantine does not offer the ideal working from home situation and, as panic lessens, changes in how people feel will become easier to observe. Working from home might stay as a top preference for some while others might prefer to come back to the office. What’s needed is a fluid, evolutionary view of both the business and organisational culture.

Elena Zuvela has worked in the commercial property sector for over 18 years’ in a variety of roles across asset, property and facilities management for major corporates. She has experience in the development and implementation of activity based working programs and change management. She holds degrees from the University of Western Australia and Murdoch University and is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

Dr Samantha Hall studies the human side of buildings, and how the places, spaces and buildings in which we work impact our wellbeing and productivity. She has more than a decade of experience in the commercial buildings sector, working with clients globally. Dr Hall is founder of design research consultancies Spaces Alive and Campus Intuition. Both use data and science to create more human-centered spaces and buildings. 


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3 Comments

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  1. I am aware that my team members are working from home under different conditions – not all of them have exclusive use of a home office in a child-free home, as I have. Some live alone, with limited social interaction and some live in crowded households where it is noisy and there is competition for privacy, quiet space and internet bandwidth. Some are balancing childcare responsibilities and home-schooling supervision responsibilities with a partner who also has work demands to juggle. It is easy to forget that each person’s circumstances have a unique combination of challenges.

  2. Thanks Elena and Samantha, Very insightful and was pleased to see that ‘the management perspective’ was also included, albeit as you point out, there is often an all too prevalent negative mindset from management with regard to staff working flexible hours let alone from home….and heaven forbid, being able to do their job without being micro-managed.
    The problem environment is indeed broad, also including the ever growing levels of distrust between salaried staff and employers (i.e. no such thing as a ‘job for life’); the increasing isolation for parents – making the office a relative escape (compared to parenting); the ubiquitous use of mobile computing/communications.
    The solution environment is also large…I’m watching with interest to see how the current situation will act as a catalyst for new trends and change.

  3. Great article. I did wonder how people were going with video conferencing … I had no idea of the technical interference. I work at home but have no dependents and my time is my own. Socialising during COVId time has become difficult.