More than ever, organisations need workplaces that build culture, enable innovation and encourage the best talent, says ISPT’s Workplace Partnership Specialist Letitia Hope.
Hope and the ISPT team recently brought together a panel of experts at ISPT’s INSIGHTS Symposium to unpack the opportunities and uncover the hidden challenges ahead – and their insights might surprise you.
There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the office forever. Nearly a third of Australian businesses currently have employees working from home. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, businesses list greater flexibility, improved work life balance and less travel time as the three biggest benefits.
Keynote speaker and economist Saul Eslake pointed to fresh research from fund manager Vanguard, which estimates around 15% of all jobs can be conducted remotely without any substantial loss of productivity. After analysing more than 1,000 job roles, Vanguard determined more than 20 million workers in the United States could shift permanently to remote working.
Another recent study by McKinsey found more than 20% of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if working from an office.
The upside of remote work is counterweighted by some serious downsides. Eslake nominated the potential loss of productivity from home distractions, the erosion of team dynamics, and fewer collaboration and innovation opportunities as the biggest. Eslake’s warning follows a similar message from the Productivity Commission which found a “prolonged period of remote work may reduce the organic development of ideas”.
“There is a lot of evidence – not just from economists but urban geographers and human resource specialists – that productivity tends to be higher in CBDs,” Eslake told ISPT’s audience. This is due to the economics of agglomeration, where benefits are gained when infrastructure costs, talent pools, knowledge and ideas are easily shared.
Eslake said fewer “serendipitous encounters” could mean less scope for career growth, as people usually draw on their networks for their next job – and “that’s how most people get pay rises”.
Hybrid hits and misses
Most workplaces have always been hybrid, said Jacyl Shaw, Global Director of GHD’s Digital D-Lab. “There have always been people at client meetings, on a construction site at a conference or on annual leave – we never had 100% in the same place.”
But creating a hybrid workplace that supports people, productivity and purpose requires thoughtful consideration from government and business leaders, landlords and communities. Together, it’s time to rethink the way we use space.
Employee costs are usually the biggest on the company balance sheet, said Alicia Maynard, ISPT’s General Manager of Sustainability & Technical Services. She talked about the positive “relational energy” generated when people come together in an inspiring workplace. Those watercooler conversations aren’t just chatter – they also help colleagues to build trust and form bonds.
Cox Architecture’s Director Karen Clutson agreed. An office is an essential physical representation of any organisation’s culture, Clutson noted. Creating a cohesive organisational culture is a big challenge when everyone is working remotely. “In fact, 85% of Cox clients have said replicating this culture is difficult away from the office.”
But after years of becoming accustomed open plan offices, working from home has eliminated a lot of background noise and distraction. As people return to the office their “tolerance for noise and disruption” is far lower than it once was, Clutson observed.
On the other hand, as people return to the office to reconnect with colleagues in person they may be a “bit noisier, a bit more informal and more excitable”. All that chatter and connection may spill out from meeting rooms. This may mean more space for collaboration, more space for quiet concentrated work, and more separation in between, Clutson said.
How do we create watercooler moments in a digital world? GHD’s Shaw said a hybrid workplace requires leaders to step up with more “intentional moments” that bring people together and remind them why their workplace matters.
Best for people and planet
Opening our eyes to the possibilities of the “remote-first mindset” could also create a much wider talent pool. During lockdowns Shaw was able to hire talent in Dubai and San Francisco, for example. “There is potential to tap into skills and into a more diverse workforce than would have been possible if your search area was commuting distance of your head office,” Eslake remarked.
Maynard pointed to one government client that has created regional office “hubs” to support remote workers. People who have never worked together are now side by side “and this presents amazing opportunities for state cohesion”. The panel agreed that women have been big beneficiaries of the shift in mindset. Some Cox clients “have been able to achieve 10 years of change on gender diversity in just one year,” Clutson said.
But there’s another hidden challenge for the hybrid model, ISPT’s Maynard pointed out. An energy efficient office – “and ISPT has some of the most energy efficient offices in the country” – produces fewer carbon emissions, enhances thermal comfort and boosts productivity. Over the past year, many Australians have worked from homes with far lower sustainability standards.
After 12 months focus on mission-critical activity, businesses are pivoting to more strategic activity that drives innovation, growth and regeneration, Letitia Hope observed. How do we ensure people are working from comfortable, productive, inclusive and low-carbon spaces, regardless of the location? The best landlords are already thinking about this challenge.