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Let’s Talk: Work where I say – Should you dictate where employees work?

COVID-19 lockdowns tested remote working arrangements on an unprecedented scale and many preconceptions about the productivity of unsupervised team members were dispelled.

Business owners are now deciding how to move forward. Many are continuing with a hybrid model; others are returning to a centralised workforce, and some are dispensing with an office completely.

So, should decisions about the location of your workforce be based on what is best for the business or on employee preference? Or are the two inextricably linked?

Let’s talk…

Alex Hattingh, Chief People Officer, Employment Hero

“Many of us have been forced to work remotely over the past year or so but looking into the future, it looks like flexible, hybrid or remote-first approaches to the workplace are well and truly here to stay – in fact our recent survey found that 94% of Australian workers want to work remotely at least once a week. 

“Implementing flexible workplace policies has mutually beneficial flow-on effects for both your employees and the overall business. Entrusting your employees with the autonomy to decide where, when and how they work best instils a sense of confidence in staff that leads to better business outcomes, better productivity and a boost in morale. 

“As a business leader, I believe putting your money where your mouth is by implementing flexibility as a policy is a reflection of your empathy and understanding as a leader and is critical to a healthy workplace culture.”

Catherine Mapusua, Head of Lending, WLTH

“After being enforced during last year’s nationwide lockdown, working from home has now become the norm for businesses transitioning to a digital-first approach in 2021.

“In our business, we already had a number of team members who resided in different states, so working remotely was never a major issue, as we were already accustomed to completing most of our meetings and correspondence via video conferencing tools.

“Despite this, we do acknowledge that collaboration is always best done in person, so we encourage our different teams, when possible, to work out specific days they can all be together in the office and use that time to hold their important meetings and planning sessions together.

“We believe our culture is core to the success of our business, so we thrive off the team being together in-person. Not only do we see a demonstrated increase in morale and productivity, but we also use the time to fulfil any necessary training which is crucial to the growth of our business.”

Jarrod Kinchington, Infor ANZ managing director

“Where it’s best for employees to work largely depends on each specific business and industry. While many staff working in the manufacturing, retail and health care sectors need to be based in a central location to undertake their work, all managers should ask: “where are my employees happiest and most productive?”. That will vary from employee to employee, but amid severe global talent shortages, staff retention should be top of mind.

“It’s important to ensure mobility and flexibility for workers across all sectors. For those who have spent over a year working remotely due to the pandemic, many will struggle with returning to the office for a traditional 9-5 week. Some may embrace being back at the water cooler, while others might find they’re more productive without the distraction of colleagues.

“Ultimately, it’s a managerial decision where employees work and whether hybrid working and remote working is permitted. Technology, such as Infor’s easy-to-use Workforce Management Software, has supported enterprises to more effectively manage workforce resources during the pandemic, with its in-built intelligent-scheduling tool enabling greater business agility, but managers also need to ask themselves why they want a particular work style, and whether that decision is about their own personal preferences or if it’s being implemented for the good of the company and its employees.”

Jay Munro, Head of Career Insights at Indeed

“In today’s environment, office workers must maintain a level of flexibility due to the shifting demands of COVID-19 restrictions. Therefore, dictating a single place of work can be impractical, unrealistic and potentially unpopular.

“When reviewing your workplace arrangement, you’ll need to consider factors like technology, culture, flexibility, inclusivity, productivity, collaboration, and employee retention and whether or not there’ll be a significant impact on these elements.  Many employers find that hybrid work arrangements provide the flexibility employees desire while also meeting critical business needs.

Once you’ve landed on your arrangement, be clear and transparent in your expectations, including where and how you expect your employees to work, and the reason behind your decisions. Finally, remember to remain open to compromise where personal circumstances permit.

Rolf Howard, Managing Partner, Owen Hodge Lawyers

“While employers do have control over where their employees work, it’s important to remember that staff also have the right under the Fair Work Act (2009) to request flexible working arrangements under certain circumstances. This includes being a parent to a child who is school-aged or younger, being a carer, having a disability, being 55 or older, or experiencing family or domestic violence. Employers must grant or refuse a request within 21 days and can only refuse the request on reasonable business grounds, otherwise, it could lead to allegations of discriminatory treatment.

“But this issue isn’t just about what employers are legally required to do, it’s also about attracting and retaining talent. Now that the adoption of flexible work has become much more common, many employees will expect some control over how and where they work. Failing to provide this opportunity could be to an employer’s detriment.”

David Hancock, Director, Montara Wealth

“I think it’s an employer’s responsibility to provide a safe, social and productive work environment. When you put it that way, does it really make sense to outsource the responsibility or decision to employees working from home?

“Not everyone has the ideal set up working from home. Many of us are working from the dining room, table or couch. Working from home exclusively can blur the lines between home and work life, plus make it more difficult for employees to build relationships with other team members. Building a successful company culture takes effort and that’s made a whole lot harder if everyone is dialling in. 

“Going forward, we’re likely to see many businesses strike a balance in which employees return to the office for the majority of the time with some flexibility to work from home – the number of days will depend on the size of the business and the employees’ role.”

Leon Sayers, Advisory Director, Unisys 

“Many organisations want their employees to return to the office but are hitting resistance. Recent research we conducted shows 40 per cent of APAC employees prefer remote working to being in the office.

“The real questions is why are employers pushing for a return at all? The majority of employers (74 per cent) and employees (70 per cent) agree that working remotely is just as, or more, productive than working in an office. Hybrid working is here to stay.

“Instead of forcing a return to the office, employers should focus on offering digital experience parity – making sure each employee has the same working experience, regardless of location. i.e., can collaborate, be heard and be productive.

“Many organisations quickly rolled out collaboration tools when COVID forced them to work from home (WFH). Now they need to review how those platforms are used, as well as the associated security and HR policies, to ensure these IT investments deliver more collaboration and productivity and aren’t held back by poor training or outdated policies.”

Aaron McEwan, VP Research & Advisory, Gartner

“The short answer is no. Forcing employees back to the office prematurely isn’t just a bad idea, it’s a costly one. Research conducted by Gartner revealed, 67 per cent of employees say their expectations for flexible working arrangements have increased significantly since the beginning of the pandemic. However, organisations are mandating the return to the office as business leaders still don’t believe staff can be productive at home, despite countless studies that suggest the opposite.

“Employees simply aren’t willing to give up on the flexibility and work life balance they have gained. In fact, our research shows that employers who force their staff to go back to the on-site environment could lose up to 39 per cent of their workforce and miss out on the opportunity of tapping into better and more diverse talent pools.

“The message for business leaders and HR departments is simple. Create a space that staff want to come back to. Ensure it is fit for purpose in the hybrid environment and is a compelling experience for workers, rather than enforce a return out of convenience.”

Carolyn Breeze, General Manager – Australia & New Zealand, GoCardless

“The perceived benefits of dictating where your employees work is, at its core, about control. The global pandemic has thrown us into the throes of remote work and, while there are undoubtedly challenges associated with remote work, a majority of the workforce has thrived and adapted well to this new way of work. 

“The freedom and flexibility to work asynchronously and from any location that suits your employees is now an important differentiator and a big value-add for companies seeking to attract and retain the best talent. 

“At GoCardless, we’ve recently implemented our ‘Adaptive Working’ policy, which means we have the freedom to choose how often we work in the office, as well as the option to work from anywhere in the world for 90 days per year. The reception from staff has been incredibly positive!” 

Monica Watt, Chief Human Resources Officer, ELMO Software

“Regardless of what changes occur in the workplace there will always be one underlying truth; the relationship between employer and employee must be based on mutual respect.

“When it comes to discussing where and how someone is to perform their job both parties need to approach the topic with respect. This means that an employer needs to show employees respect and seek to understand why they may prefer to work remotely rather than in the office. Similarly, an employee needs to try and understand the employer’s perspective too. 

“With the new era of work truly underway, it’s important that employers and employees approach these matters with an open mind and willingness to communicate. 

“Trust, transparency and respect are the essential elements that can help employers and employees avoid diktats.”

 Julia Poloai, Head of Culture and Talent, Clipchamp

“The pre-pandemic status quo of rigid structures and on-site offices no longer has a place in the current climate. Being forced into remote work over the past year has made employers and employees alike realise that productivity, a flourishing workplace culture and great outcomes don’t need to be confined to the four walls of your primary workplace. As it stands, flexibility is now a non-negotiable for a lot of candidates and businesses looking to recruit top talent need to get on board with these new expectations. 

“Of course, there will be instances where on-site working or face-to-face meetings make sense or add value, but we need to let go of the one-size-fits-all approach and give staff more power when it comes to choosing the way they work, where they work and, even, when they work.”

Balder Tol, General Manager Australia and Southeast Asia, WeWork 

“As we look to the future of work, successful organisations will trust and empower their employees with the autonomy to choose where they will do their best work. Although the pandemic has accelerated a shift towards more flexible working, this is a trend we have been seeing for the past 10 years. 

“Flexibility – or the choice of when and where to work – is something that’s become an even more attractive incentive to businesses and employees alike. The rise of third “workplaces” – teleworking in cafes, hotels or co-working spaces – means many employees are realising that working remotely doesn’t necessarily mean working from home either. 

“It’s no secret home working can be full of distractions, so alternative work environments are gaining popularity as companies can offer top talent greater access to flexible workspace for productive, collaborative working that can change and grow with them.”

Rob Ranoa, Founder of Hypop

“The pandemic has taught us that with the right conferencing and collaboration tools, most of us can work from just about anywhere. Of course, not all businesses are able to function with a remote workforce, but for those that can, it makes sense for businesses to offer employees the flexibility to choose their workspace. As long as the work is getting done, it shouldn’t matter where the employees are working from.

“However, even while working from home, your employees are still the face of the business. So, while it might not be fair to dictate where they work all of the time, it is reasonable to request that remote workers – particularly those who are regularly giving presentations or communicating with clients – adhere to a certain standard of presentation. 

“Home offices are often not very well lit when compared with traditional offices, and webcams are so small they don’t capture much light, which means remote workers often appear dark, grainy and unprofessional on video calls, which doesn’t give a great first impression for your business. 

“To avoid this, SMBs can put guidelines in place for remote employees to ensure they always look professional while working remotely, such as choosing a bright, well-lit space – either by sunlight or additional lighting options – and ensuring backgrounds are clean and clutter-free to avoid distraction. This will give your employees the flexibility to work wherever they’re most productive, while still ensuring your business stays on brand.” 

John McNamara, Chief Executive Officer – Australia, Gallagher Bassett  

“We all know working life has drastically changed in the last 18 months, and moving forward, the definition of a workplace and the working environment will never be the same.  

“It’s been really clear to us at Gallagher Bassett that by empowering our team to choose their workplace, whether that be the traditional office or from their home, we can enable them to set up a work environment that matches their needs. In turn, this flexibility will increase their productivity and output. Allowing choice can result in a win-win for the employee and the employer, when implemented well. 

“Employers should try to avoid dictating where employees work wherever possible, as the opportunity to empower and enable your team with the ability to choose their work environment can lead to higher satisfaction and work motivation. This flexibility allows them to determine how to balance work with life and can result in a significant shift in mindset; rather than conforming to a one size fits all approach, choice can allow competing priorities to all be attended to, and ensure employees achieve a sense of accomplishment and see a genuine impact on mental well-being.

“To answer, should the employers dictate where an employee works? In short, no. Boundaries and expectations are important so that everyone understands flexible work arrangements and the consequences for not meeting expectations, however if that is done effectively, allowing choice can be a game changer – and perhaps we can truly help our people find that ever-striving goal of work-life balance.”

Jason Toshack, General Manager ANZ, Oracle NetSuite

“To ‘dictate’ where employees should work, is unlikely to have a positive outcome.  We know that there are jobs that can’t be done remotely, but where it’s possible, businesses should work with employees to find the best outcome for all. Importantly, business leaders should note that one size does not fit all, so they need to apply some flexibility. Businesses often compete for talent and offering more options on where employees work, might play an important part in attracting the best skills. 

 “We are fortunate to have access to a wealth of digital tools that enable businesses to offer flexible working conditions. Cloud technology ensures teams can get their work done from anywhere it makes sense for them.  All they need is a secure WI-FI connection.

 The past year has shown that my teams have been very productive at home. The key to managing remote or hybrid teams is to set clear goals and maintaining open lines of communication. Ultimately, leaders must ensure their teams feel both supported and motivated.”

Peter Philipp, General Manager, ANZ Neo4j

“’Dictate’ is a problematic word in today’s more democratic, collaborative workplace culture. With the number of tools we have available to monitor progress and productivity, there’s no need for a culture of control and micromanaging.

“As a manager, you call the shots. You generally have a legal right to direct employees to return to the office. But you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot! Flexibility is a top consideration for employees these days, and you don’t want to lose valued people to competitors offering a more flexible arrangement.

“Many knowledge workers can be equally productive whether based at home, in a remote location or in a traditional office. For large companies, virtual collaboration has been the norm long before the COVID pandemic and this setting has filtered through to organisations of all sizes in recent times. Consider what you want vs what you actually need and negotiate with employees so everyone is happy.”

Andy Hurt, Managing Director, ANZ Poly

“This really depends on the culture of your organisation because your company culture dictates the way that you drive interaction with your customers and your employees. If a business needs employees back in the office, it’s okay for managers to state that this is what they are looking for.

“But while there will be businesses who need staff on premise the majority of the time, the future is likely to be hybrid working. This means a mix of in-office and remote or home-based working. This will suit different work-style personas: those who prefer to be office-based and physically present with other team members, and those who prefer to split their time between home/remote office and main office.

“Equipping employees with the right technology and equipment makes it much easier to offer the flexibility required for hybrid working and ensures that remote employees don’t get sidelined.”

Vu Tran, Co-Founder, Go1

“As challenging as the pandemic has been, it has also been an enormous opportunity to rethink work processes, tap into global talent and increase technology and communication skills. With a workforce empowered by mobility, able to work from anywhere, and adept at collaborating virtually, why would any business give that up unnecessarily?

“Maintaining company culture and team spirit is important, and this may seem more challenging with distributed teams. But you can still grow a positive culture with remote teams. We’re an example of this at Go1 – with nine offices across six countries, we don’t have the luxury of having everyone meet face-to-face every day. We have to find other ways to promote creativity, collaboration and boost morale.

“What matters is what an employee does, not where they do it. If they are productive and contributing to your business, why not let them choose their main location?”

Remo Carbone, CEO, MEQ Probe

“There has been a global realisation that productivity is now location-agnostic for most roles, and that remote working doesn’t compromise output quality. However, some vocations have an inherent requirement to operate within the boundaries of a physical workplace, such as critical health services, logistics, and hospitality. 

“Flexibility is now undeniably the new status quo; while location is no longer a major concern for some roles, it’s still a sticking point with others. The MEQ Probe team is spread across four locations – Gundagai NSW, Sydney, New York and Eastern Europe. 

“Our Gundagai HQ is located in New South Wales’ prime lamb growing region as they are involved in on-ground testing and the location puts us in the mindset of the farmers and processors we work alongside. This hands-on work is crucial to our machine learning process and furthers our whole business; however, we have built-in flexibility where possible, with our management and development teams located remotely.” 


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