We love working from home but badly miss our office colleagues all at the same time. A new study highlights what the road ahead looks like for the public sector and remote work, and there are a few surprises.
If you’ve ever spent time during a video meeting discretely tapping away on a separate but more urgent task (all while fighting the urge to turn the heater on) take a bow; you’re probably one of Australia’s millions of employees boosting national productivity by working from home.
As the nation heads towards (a party-less) Christmas and craves relief from restrictions on movement and gatherings, organisations and their staff are quickly realising much of the static convention and norms of ‘office’ culture might just have been cut loose for good.
Take the obligatory start-of-the-week meeting that somehow expanded into more meetings that then sucked-up half a day you never had to start with. Or the 53 slide deck you’ve already seen.
The talkers still talk, but the real win behind remote meetings is that thousands of public sector executives and professionals just got a chunk of their day back because it’s now okay to type away during a remote meeting, especially if you are at home.
So, what have we learned? Quite a lot
With public transport still largely declared avoidable unless essential, government agencies and private organisations are more than happy to up-cycle once ‘dead’ commuting time into an opportunity for flexibility.
It could be an additional catch-up to stay ahead, some much-needed exercise or a sneaky sleep-in.
Research of more than 2,000 once traditional office-based professionals, commissioned by enterprise workplace automation and connectivity leader, DocuSign, found that around 80% of employers have mandated working-from-home (WFH) as a core response to COVID-19.
Flexible workplace arrangements, including cloud-based services and robust remote access, have risen from a nicety to a must-have, with tech rollouts accelerating in pace to days rather than weeks or months.
Flexi-time for all
The big, obvious take-way is that public and private sector knowledge workers have demonstrated swift flexibility and resilience while also maintaining operational proficiency in the face of severe disruption a powerful trust and confidence booster if ever there was one.
We now also know that workplaces won’t return to the way we worked before. Especially at a physical level, when attendance at an office for many was once a mandatory requirement, especially for younger age groups, with focus shifting to outcomes, rather than time at the desk.
Somewhat paradoxically, it seems we have more time; yet time is more precious than ever.
So how does the public sector empower staff to stay motivated and deliver solid results without being in the office?
Well, there’s no single ‘right answer’ — but some of the research responses may surprise you.
Home is where the work is: but WFH needs to work
A key finding of DocuSign’s cross-sectoral research is a phenomenon dubbed ‘The Home Enterprise’, a workforce state where a major proportion of staff either choose, or are required, to work outside the office — from home, offsite or anywhere.
It’s accepted that employers and office staff have risen to the challenge of ‘keeping going’, even if it’s meant commandeering the kitchen table or taking the laptop for a walk so multiple virtual meetings aren’t all happening in the same room at once.
We also accept many of the work-from-home ‘hacks’ (kitchen bench becomes stand-up desk) are temporary and that physical offices will not stay empty forever, even if changes wrought by digital transformation will be permanent.
The challenge public sector leaders now face is how to retain the most positive and productive elements of this year’s disruptive shift and apply them to what our workplaces will look like in the foreseeable future — think 2021 and beyond.
The pertinent question The Home Enterprise explores is when Australians do “go back to work” under a semblance of normalcy, how do we ensure that we bank the innovation and gains made during a crisis and keep making improvements?
Managing pressure points
A big part of the lived experience of working through pandemic disruption boils down to individual living arrangements, and the degree to which individuals can make their circumstances work for them.
Public sector or private, older and more senior workers may have more established homes that already cater to some work-from-home requirements: a dedicated space, desk, printer monitors and other creature comforts.
It’s also been well established that organisations and staff that had already embraced mobile and untethered work capabilities and practices found it easier to adapt — like not having to buy large numbers of laptops at times of short supply.
Less visible are the pressures and struggles of people working from rented share houses or flats where cabin fever, loneliness and suboptimal set-ups can all take their toll.
Asked what the biggest challenge when remote working during COVID-19 was, 44% of respondents nominated “access to office equipment” followed by “a full desk set-up” on 38%, “having a dedicated place to work” on 34% and “in-person support staff” on 30%.
Office workers also yearn for their people rather than the office itself. Team camaraderie was cited as the “most missed factor” by 45% of Australian staff surveyed, followed by “the social life of the office” on 41%.
As many parents with young children will attest, work can sometimes be a relief, with 47% of workers with one child or more reckoning they are now working harder compared to an average of 42%.
Defining future work: the crucial factors
While digital tools combined with a comfortable workspace might assist remote working, the mass shift to work-from-home proved most of us can make things work if we have to (even if it means dusting off old monitors once destined for e-waste).
It’s a different story across the longer term, especially elevating and sustaining staff morale, motivation and creativity.
While many organisations had started to embrace ‘new ways of working’ and flexible practices, the notion that employers necessarily defined and mandated how we work, often dominated organisational culture.
The big question now is not whether stubborn and less flexible work models have been broken; it’s how organisations and their people adapt, evolve and thrive in a way that is both equitable and effective.
The research undertaken suggests the following attributes can bolster organisations and their staff at a wellbeing and performance level across a range of age groups and demographics.
While younger staff familiar with mobile and collaborative working might understandably need to dig deeper for motivation in socially isolated times, older workers can unintentionally be left behind if new tools and ways of working aren’t properly explained.
The Home Enterprise research notes “almost half of Australian office workers reported that their company had not updated or trained staff on new ways of working — including a majority (56%) of workers aged over 55.”
That’s a particular challenge for the public sector because it potentially leaves behind some of government’s most experienced and senior people at a time when agile, adaptive policy and service delivery is crucial.
“Recognise that people’s performance and motivation is dependent on their remote working environment,” the report recommends. “Place a stronger emphasis on training older employees on new ways of working so they learn how to use technology and feel engaged, no matter where they’re working from.”
The socially distant work requirements of our pandemic response has forced millions into altering how and where they work. But nobody is hoping the situation will be permanent.
The very nature of flexible work is that people get a say in where and how they work, with their organisation also benefitting from the equation by attracting and retaining motivated and capable staff able to meet challenges.
That means for flexibility to work effectively it needs to be an option rather than an obligation. Just over half (52%) of workers canvassed in The Home Enterprise research said they preferred the “structure and stability” of regular office hours and physically present teams.
This said, the research also found 61% of workers “believe they should have the ability to work from home when required in a post-COVID-19 world.” Choice clearly matters.
Aside from rapid deployment of new digital tools, a big factor in Australia’s remote working revolution has been a workforce that rapidly re-skilled, even if informally and sometimes by trial and error.
On this journey, teams in organisations have learned what actually works for them, whether it’s making digital processes end-to-end, keeping online meeting on-time and on-point (without losing friendliness) or learning how to word a support ticket so it gets priority.
“More than a quarter of office workers agree that having access to the right office equipment — such as DocuSign, Slack and Zoom — fosters higher productivity,” the report observed.
The challenge now — and it’s an achievable one — is how to bank those benefits for employees and their organisations so that work becomes a better place to be, enabling the public sector to increase the common good it’s charged with delivering.
COVID-19 may have wrought once unimaginable changes to how government operates across a number of levels. The opportunity to harness the most positive changes — smartness, flexibility and resilience — is not one that should be missed.