What will the future workplace in Australia look like?

Following changes to the office environment brought by the coronavirus pandemic, professionals and organisations are trying to figure out what their workplace will look like in 2022.

video conferencing / remote work
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After several lockdowns across the country in the past 20 months, organisations are still exploring what the workplace will look like in 2022 — whether staff will be required to return to the office, be given a choice to work from home permanently, or be able to choose a hybrid approach and mix both options.

The same applies to IT professionals.  While some technology jobs lend themselves to on-site collaboration, other work can be done remotely. Tech team leaders and executive management are therefore considering what the optimal workplace strategy should be.

What will Australian workplace look like?

Not many companies are considering a return to the office like it was pre-COVID,   Neha Kumar, CIO advisory director at Gartner, tells Computerworld Australia.

“Most of the questions that I'm getting today are about ‘When we moved to remote work, given the lockdown that came in, we didn't have time to be intentional and purposeful about planning it out. We just had to pivot. But right now, we have the time to shape it a bit more deliberately, intentionally’,” Kumar says.

The discussion is about how to make the hybrid workplace — a mix of working at home and in the office — work. “I feel like with the lockdown, there has been a sobering realisation that this is here to stay, and this is how it's going to be,” Kumar says.

Observational work will be difficult to be do in a remote scenario, says Forrester analyst Sam Higgins. IT support had traditionally been done remotely, he notes, but before the pandemic it was shifting to be being done onsite to establish a "human connection."

In a development cycle, on the other hand, it might be good to have the development team solving more technical problems or producing deliverables asynchronously and remotely rather than together onsite, according to Higgins.

Define principles to guide employees

IT team leaders are feeling pressure from multiple sides. Kumar has seen technology team leaders face pressure from their executive team for a return to onsite work, while IT staff appear to prefer a remote or hybrid work environment. Meanwhile, hybrid and work-from-home environments have had  an emotional impact on team leaders as they lost the visibility and control that they previously had in an office environment.

Workplace strategy isn’t about defining one policy that fits all, but setting up a set of principles that gives people autonomy as well as guidance so they can make decisions to allow them to perform to the best of their ability, according to Kumar.

Organisations and managers will have to think about who can work from anywhere and under what circumstances. Western Australia, for example, was less impacted by lockdowns than other regions and many firms are maintaining a pre-pandemic approach.

“This doesn’t mean there is no remote or hybrid work but few seem to be making the shift to anywhere work as dramatically as other states,” Higgins says. “The danger for employers in WA is that, once borders open, will this clutching to a pre-pandemic reality, so out of alignment with the rest of the world, cause a sudden skills drain or will anywhere workers flock to WA as a lifestyle choice. Time will tell.”

What IT professionals are looking for

Workers are after flexibility, and this will look different in different scenarios.  If professionals are at the office at different times and not physically meeting but spending most of their day in the office on video calls, then what is the point?

“If all we're going to do is lift and shift the pandemic lockdown remote worker scenario into an office setting for part of the time, I don't think that's a real motivator for people to shift,” Higgins says.

A Forrester survey found that 60% of Australian workers continue to work from home, and 36% of IT workers in the country indicated that the organisation they work for will maintain an expanded remote or home-based work policy after the pandemic.

There is still a preference for human contact when it comes to some IT functions such as help desk services. Of five topics researched by Forrester, chatbots were the most unpopular solution for reporting IT issues or getting those issues fixed.

Safety issues are still a workplace concern

One of the most concerning points, however, is the feeling of safety. While working from home has been mostly accepted there has been some pressure to return to the office, be that from the organisations themselves or colleagues who want to be in the office and expect others to also be present.

Responses to the Forrester survey were mixed: 31% of IT professionals said they worry the organisations they work for will insist for their return to the office before they feel safe to do so, while 38% don’t feel that pressure and 31% did not have a defined view on the topic. When exploring professionals outside IT, that scale shifts slightly, with 37% of Australian professionals worrying they will have to return before they feel safe to do so.

Another risk to trying to enforce a pre-pandemic approach is losing talent. Data from a Gartner global survey showed 54% of people would consider flexibility at work as a decisive point when choosing to remain or to leave an organisation. More data from Gartner, specific to Australia and New Zealand, showed 45.6% of employees see work-life balance as a key attraction driver.

“Flexibility is, in a sense, having the autonomy to balance work with other priorities in life — this is something that IT employees care about, and they want to work for employers that offer that flexibility,” Gartner’s Kumar tells.

The same Gartner survey saw A/NZ employees pointing out three main issues in the workplace: manager quality (33.3%); people management (31.9%); and recognition (24.6%).

Decision makers focus on productivity

Decision makers are concerned about maintaining productivity in a hybrid or work-from-home environment. Surveys reveal mixed feelings about productivity in remote-work environments. Only 20% of Australian respondents to the Gartner survey said they were less productive since January 2020, and 46% felt their productivity remained the same. Forrester, though, found that while 59% of Australian IT workers preferring to work from home, 54% said they were not as productive when doing so.

There is space for deeper research and monitoring on the topic. What Gartner found was that flexibility, such as flexible working hours, improves productivity from the point of view of professionals.

“What we're seeing is, while the concerns have been around productivity, the unintended consequence of remote work has actually been fatigue. And we are seeing so many conversations on employee fatigue and how that has increased a lot, especially with the extended lockdowns that we faced here in Australia,” says Kumar. Companies are starting to focus on reducing fatigue, which can affect productivity if it remains unaddressed, Kumar adds.

How to equip managers for the new workplace

Once organisations have a set of principles defined that can help them shape what their future work environment will look like the focus should shift to line managers. Kumar says that people managers aren’t well equipped at this stage to manage virtual teams. Managers need to receive appropriate training to be prepared and allowed to address and have conversations where people show vulnerability.

“For example, when their employees bring up fatigue or bring up isolation due to the pandemic, to be able to deal with these vulnerable conversations and to feel safe having it rather than trying to avoid it because they've never done it before,” Kumar says. A goal for organizations, Kumar says, should be “investing in the people managers to help them have these conversations and feel like they can prioritise employee wellbeing and foster deeper connections with their own teams.”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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