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Why SMEs can’t fit employees back into a 2019-shaped box

With the height of the pandemic behind us, state governments across Australia have lifted requirements to work from home. While specific arrangements are at the discretion of employers, there has been a notable move towards getting people back into the office.

The CEO of NAB has joined the chorus of leaders pining for a resurrection of the buzzing metropolis. Likewise, Twitter has reopened its doors, with Google, a long-time proponent of the traditional office set-up, announcing its re-opening this month.

But while devising workplace policies, companies can’t ignore the fact today’s workforce looks very different from that of 2019. Australian workers have unshackled mainly themselves from the rigid, one-size-fits-all approach to productivity and taken control of their priorities. 

In a global Gartner study, 65 per cent of respondents said the pandemic shifted their attitude toward the value of aspects outside work, and the same number are re-thinking the role work should have in their lives.

For various reasons, it’s entirely impractical to squeeze these employees back into a 2019-shaped box. Take working parents, for instance, who have funnelled the time traditionally spent commuting to and from the office over the past two years into packing lunches, driving to school, attending swimming lessons, and helping with homework.

There’s also the fact Australians are now more geographically dispersed than ever. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) found in 2020 that our regional areas experienced their biggest inflow of residents since the agency started tracking this data in 2001. Try asking the more than 13,000 people who left Melbourne for regional Victoria during the pandemic to return to an office in the city.

And let’s not forget people enjoy hybrid work and feel more productive and appreciated under this model. Research from IWG found 72 per cent of workers want the long-term flexibility, and 42 per cent of Gen Z workers would even pass on pay rises of between six to 20 per cent if it means they get proper hybrid work.

Australian workers can’t be expected to wipe the lessons and expectations formed over the last two years from their memories. Organisations need to align hybrid work policies with the new, digitally-enabled environment by dismantling barriers to productivity and connectedness in a way that traverses physical location.

Borrowing lessons from the past two years

Back in 2020, many organisations responded to work-from-home mandates by hastily rolling out Zoom or Teams to get staff online as quickly as possible. Little thought was given to how these measures would deal with the various and often unpredictable challenges that emerged during the pandemic.

At a recent event attended by some of the largest organisations in Australia, leaders reported that over the last two years, inadequate remote work set-ups had seen their workers continually hit productivity roadblocks that seriously impacted their quality of life and ability to serve customers. 

It was somewhat unfair to point the finger of blame in 2020, but the successive challenges of the past few years have clearly demonstrated the urgency of leaders investing in a robust hybrid work set-up geared to deal with unexpected events.

We saw this recently with the devastating floods on the east coast that, for many, again necessitated a return to remote work at a moment’s notice.

People are fatigued when it comes to baseless rhetoric and yearn for a company policy backed by meaningful, structural change and tangible investment in the technologies they need to do their jobs.

Under a hybrid work model, employees should be encouraged to set their own work hours and disconnect at times of their choosing, depending on their individual needs. They should also have the means to collaborate and share with their colleagues, and access all the digital tools they need for their roles, whether they are in the office or not – even if it means increased spend for the organisation.

Staff also need to feel supported personally and professionally, with their mental wellbeing at the forefront of hybrid work considerations. Last year, due to a string of stop-start lockdowns, a lack of face-to-face connection and a blending of home and office environments, Australian workers were among the most burnt out in the world.

But with digitalisation at the centre of hybrid work, it’s critical that bringing new technologies into the mix doesn’t culminate in ‘Big Brother is watching’ management.

In November, a database was published exposing companies that have created ‘bossware’, which enables managers to keep an unnervingly close eye on remote workers.

Hybrid work can’t be forgotten as office doors reopen, and that means ensuring the evolved needs of Australia’s workers become the driving force behind business decisions and policy. If not, workplace productivity and morale will suffer, with obvious implications for our industries and people – and your best talent might just walk away.

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Jeremy Paton

Jeremy Paton

Jeremy Paton is a telecommunications industry expert and unified communications specialist with more than 23 years of experience. Jeremy is currently Avaya’s Team Engagement Solutions Lead for Asia-Pacific (APAC). He joined the company in 2003 and has progressed from maintenance engineering and complex troubleshooting through to solutions architecture development across telephony environments and contact centres. With a passion for leveraging comprehensive technologies and services to drive transformative communications strategies, Jeremy has consulted and delivered solutions for enterprises, government agencies and midmarket organisations across the region. In his time at Avaya, Jeremy has been commended by the industry for his deep technical knowledge, strong work ethic and ability to articulate ideas beyond the standard industry narrative.

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