Jan 2021 – Return to Work

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Welcome back to work and to our new monthly Newsletter. I will be touching base via email each month to share insights from our latest research and conversations with Great Place to Work-Certified™ companies and partners.

Flexibility is the mantra for 2021 as organisations begin the process of weaning workforces off the COVID-induced work-from-home approach to a hybrid model of in-office and off-site working.

Great Place to Work® recently spoke to a range of Australia’s 2020 Best Workplaces™ about their return-to-office plans in 2021.

The common theme? Ensuring employee well-being is at the forefront of any change.

For most, this means taking a flexible approach and allowing employees to make individual decisions about their working preferences, while keeping the needs of the business and customers fulfilled.

“2020 impacted people in wildly different ways – the introverts loved it, but the extroverts were chewing their arms off,” says Brock Bastian, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne.

Bastian, who has spent 15 years researching the impact of stressful experiences on team functioning, says 2020 proved people can take work home and be independent, responsible and trustworthy employees.

He sets out some guidelines for businesses returning their workforce to the office in 2021.

“Offering flexibility will be really important because that will allow people to feel that they have some choice in this and they can still manage their own workloads individually.

SAP, the multinational software giant that employs around 1800 people across Australia and New Zealand, says it plans to leave it up to individual staff to make the decision about when they work in the office and when they work from home.

Debbie Rigger, head of human resources for SAP’s Australia and New Zealand operations, says that the pandemic lockdown proved overnight that the team could operate on an entirely remote model.

“Covid has shown that our staff can deliver for customers wherever they are. We promote a work anywhere, anytime policy, as we want to give our people the flexibility to suit their schedules and lifestyles. It’s about creating the environment, trust and policies that work for each individual.”

At the same time, SAP ANZ has recently moved into a new headquarters in North Sydney that is designed to entice employees back into the office.

“It has areas dedicated to co-working, co-innovation and collaboration,” Rigger says, adding it also has “pool tables and table tennis and treadmill desks where you can walk and put your laptop there and get some exercise. Across all eight of our ANZ offices, we have dedicated teams working to ensure employee safety, as well as good health, wellbeing, and social activity.”

SAP ANZ runs regular pulse surveys to understand the needs of its workforce, checking in on how people are feeling, whether they are satisfied with communications levels, how their IT equipment is working and what they might need to work more effectively.

During the pandemic, Rigger says internal surveys showed 40 per cent of SAP employees did not want to return to the office. Post-pandemic, “76 per cent said they planned to return to the office for two days or less per week.”

These sound like discouraging numbers for a company that has just invested in a flagship office, but Rigger demurs: “It’s more around ensuring we increase engagement, increase performance – and deliver to our customers.”

“Our encouragement is: we want you to know that you will be safe when you come to the office and we know you’ll enjoy the space, the amenities and services on offer, and you’ll enjoy seeing people face to face again.”

Cobild – a construction firm based in Melbourne – says having people in the office is a “massive part of the culture”.

“One of our main values is ‘fun is energy’, which means essentially that people create energy, so having a good vibe in the office is pretty paramount,” says Brianna Keogh, Cobild’s head of people and culture.

But flexibility remains key.

 “They can work at home, they can work from the beach, they can work from a construction site,” says Keogh.

Cobild assesses its workforce’s preferences by encouraging face-to-face conversations directly with the leadership team, supplemented by anonymous surveys.

The 400-strong team at Starlight Children’s Foundation – a charity that provides support for unwell kids and teens – are traditionally split between working in-office and on-premises at hospitals.

During 2020, most hospitals allowed the charity to continue to run its on-premises programs, but office staff were moved to working from home as the lockdowns took hold.

Now, as Starlight considers its return to office plan, it is also putting flexibility and individual choice at the top of the list.

“We’re already an incredibly flexible organisation and we feel that we can take that flexibility to new highs,” says Susan Henry, Starlight’s head of people and culture.

Henry says Starlight surveyed its staff late in 2020 seeking to understand work habits pre-COVID and their preferences post-COVID.

“People said pre-COVID they spent, on average, 3.5 days a week in the office. Post-COVID, they expect to spend 2.5 days. So, our team is saying we will reduce a day in the office a week. We are comfortable with that.”

“What we don’t want to do is lock in rigidities. Work where you do your best work. That could be home, that could be our office, it could be a community space. That’s the sort of hybrid model that we will be looking at.”

Recovery Partners, a national consultancy that helps insurers and employers reduce the costs of worker injuries and illness, is taking a pragmatic approach to 2021.

For the 80 per cent of its staff who work directly with clients – most of them already working flexibly pre-COVID, traveling between client visits – remote work and virtual conferencing have been very successful.

“If 12 months ago, we said to a GP, ‘rather than coming out to the practice can we please dial in to the consult?’ They would have said ‘no way’.”

“Phone and videoconferencing have been a positive for our consultants. Taking four hours of unbillable travel out of your week is a good outcome.”

“They will continue to work in the way that suits them best. What we’ve learned is that some people like to work in office, some people like to work from home, some people like to come in for lunch with their colleagues a couple of times a week. Allowing people to work with their own rhythm has been successful and we’ll definitely continue to do that.”

But for the office-based support staff, remote working has not been as successful, and the firms is encouraging a return to offices across the country.

“Our support staff – particularly those that have been working in Sydney – really love working from home and really want to continue working from home. Unfortunately, that’s not the best thing for our business.”

“The convenience for them working at home creates inconvenience down the chain. So, it’s that that’s going to continue to be a challenge for us moving forward.”

Recovery Partners is solving this challenge by decentralising its support staff across different offices and allowing them to choose which office in a city they work from, reducing commute times.

“We’re still trying to achieve a balance. But definitely the requirement will be that more than 50 per cent of the time they will be required to physically be in an office.”

Brown is taking a team-by-team approach – allowing flexibility within a team to manage who is in the office and who is at home, “as long as the objectives that we’ve set are being met”.

Melbourne University’s Bastian says organisations should look out for a few key signs to measure whether the return to office in 2021 has been a success.

First, look out for health issues from the workforce during the transition. A rise in sick days could indicate people are not coping with the change.

Second, keep an eye on productivity measures. Workforces that are handling change well tend to keep up their performance.

“And it’s a good time to be checking in with a few culture surveys, making sure people are feeling engaged and relatively satisfied in the roles and interpersonal factors are not flaring up in any kind of way.”

I hope these insights from our Best Workplaces provide you with inspiration as you develop practices to support your people return to work
If you think someone else would be interested in the information in this month’s Newsletter, please feel free to share. 
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To be eligible for the World’s Best Workplaces list, a company must apply and be named to a minimum of 5 national Best Workplaces lists within our current 58 countries, have 5,000 employees or more worldwide, and at least 40% of the company’s workforce (or 5,000 employees) must be based outside of the home country. Extra points are given based on the number of countries where a company surveys employees with the Great Place to Work Trust Index©, and the percentage of a company’s workforce represented by all Great Place to Work surveys globally. Candidates for the 2017 Worlds Best Workplaces list will have appeared on national workplaces lists published in September 2016 through August 2017.