Temperature checks, lifts limited to a handful of people, desks metres apart – the office experience has clearly changed a lot in just a few months.
And in reality, it is unlikely to go back to “normal” anytime soon with some version of physical distancing likely to remain a workplace requirement for some time given the continued, although in lower numbers, new cases of COVID-19 and uncertainty around the development of a vaccine.
So, yes, “hot desking” is on hold for the time being.
But despite the challenges the past few months have thrown up, there’s also great opportunities for companies and employees to benefit from the changes to how and where many office-based workers have historically worked. For example, employers should now be likely to be more open to workplace flexibility than ever before given the real success of the global “work from home”, or WFH, experiment brought on by the pandemic.
This will offer up greater remote working optionality for employees whose work can be done outside of the normal workplace.
As corporate Australia gradually starts to return their employees to offices, including here at Westpac through our pilot program that began this week involving 500 people, it’s worth reflecting on just how big the recent changes were in their speed and scale, particularly for a nation that has traditionally had a strong “go to work” psyche.
As the shutdown escalated and banking was declared an essential service, Westpac shifted within days to having around 22,000 Australian corporate site-based employees – which includes many operations and call centre people – working from home in order to provide enough safe physical space for those who had to continue operating on site.
In March alone, this resulted in more than 300,000 hours of audio and video conferences, up from around 42,000 hours in the same month a year earlier. Likewise, in April we saw 24 million minutes of audio and video conferencing compared to around 48 million over a full year in prior years.
As a large employer, we’ve done a lot of thinking about and enabling of flexible and remote working over the years. But we could have never imagined numbers like these – and kudos to our technology team for all their hard work in making it possible. As they say, crises can also bring great outcomes.
It’s true this shift to a distributed workforce hasn’t been entirely seamless – changing work behaviour patterns of a lifetime isn’t easy for everyone. Leaders have had to adjust how they manage, keep people motivated, connected and performing. There are also considerations relating to our mental health and physical wellbeing, and, of course, data security implications in being away from our more controllable workplaces. And employees have had to be more self-managing and connect with colleagues in entirely new ways.
But COVID-19 has forced an accelerated response to these issues and, overall, the shift from the office to the home has been a remarkable success with many stories of productivity improvements and loads of positive feedback. The best part is that we now have the capability to think about optimal outcomes for the company and our people going forward.
As a bank, we have had two main “hubs” or work environments where our people operate from.
Of course, we have branch hubs, which are somewhat less flexible environments given the purpose is to serve our customers. Then we have our corporate site hubs, such as operations centres and CBD headquarters, where we have had flexibility within the environments to choose how we work.
And now we have the “home” or remote hub which, as COVID-19 has shown us, can be a viable third and important part of our workplace strategy. The ability to work from home gives people more flexibility to choose where they work; and for many has proven to be more convenient, help productivity, save money or provide a place of greater focus.
True remote working provides more choice to our existing people and opens new talent pools to the bank in locations further from Sydney and the other big CBDs. Flexibility used to be talked about as open plan workspaces or starting and leaving early to fit in with the kids. Going forward, it will include the choice of where to work on a much larger scale.
But this doesn’t mean office towers will disappear and the look and feel of CBDs will be changed forever.
Companies will still have corporate offices and employees will still feel this is their main workplace. We’ll just make better use of the options open to us.
Employees may work a few days from home and a few in the city, saving time and money on commuting and even business travel. Or they might take a shorter commute to a smaller site closer to home, while others who mainly work from home may occasionally meet their team in the city for a workshop or collaboration day. For companies, this shift could mean reimagining geographic locations and having smaller sites nearer to where pockets of employees with specific skills live.
Of course, the fact is that everyone wants different things and responds to situations differently, and this is the main challenge our leaders have in balancing everyone’s needs in a distributed workforce, including the need for teams to be productive and performing.
The key is continuing to build capability in our leaders to manage and lead distributed workforces, effective role modelling from leaders and having the best technology to ensure we have seamless experiences regardless of our physical locations – these will deliver the best possible overall employee experience.
Our return to corporate site pilot program, which began on Wednesday across Adelaide, Perth and Sydney, will provide valuable insight as we focus on a safe major phased return.
It’s the balance that’s key, and COVID-19’s shot in the arm to the WFH movement has clearly sped the considerations around this up – which is an opportunity well worth taking.