PODCAST: How COVID-19 could change work life as we know it

Experts consider the future workplace as workforces stay productive at home.

April 08, 2020

Working from home, or anywhere other than the office, is something companies have trialled over the last decade. With results mixed, it remained an exception rather than a rule.

But COVID-19 quarantine policies have sent employees of all levels – from chief executives to junior staff – home with laptops to their kitchen tables. With this mass experiment underway, there is a belief among workplace experts that such set ups could become more prevalent at companies large and small.

Well beyond the peak of the crisis, corporate culture and, more than likely, the digital skills of global workforces, will have changed in significant ways. Location and working hours could become more flexible, leading to better productivity and improved work life balance for individuals.

“Given how suddenly everything changed, that tech has stood up pretty well, and people are mostly enjoying the flexibility to manage their day according to what needs to be done, I think we are inevitably entering a new dawn in the workplace experience,” says Gillian Rowbotham, human experience director – Australasia, JLL.

As stricter quarantine measures are imposed across the world to stop the spread of COVID-19, companies of all sizes are implementing work-from-home policies, and for countries in lockdown, there has simply been no choice. Organisations from NASA, to General Motors, to Twitter, and the Australian Securities Exchange, are all putting their remote working capabilities to the test.

In China, where the outbreak appeared earlier in the year, and working from home is less common than in the West, the productivity gains have reportedly been eye-opening for some CEOs accustomed to a highly top-down management style.

For Ness Stonnill, founder of Job Pair, which provides solutions for Australian workers of all positions and professions to work flexibly - including job-sharing, working remotely, or transitioning to retirement - one of the biggest post-pandemic workplace legacies will be trust, as company leaders and managers re-examine their relationship with their employees, and creating more inclusive workplaces.

A nine-month study by Stanford University in 2014 challenging the notion that employees working from home slack off, actually found that home working led to a 13 percent performance increase. On top of that, work satisfaction in employees improved and the rate of staff leaving the company halved.

“Where flexible working hasn’t been broadly applied in companies, it often comes down to a manager’s or human resources manager’s position on flexible work – their belief, experiences, or desire to do it. This is why having strategies in place to roll it out, and the tools and technology to do it, is really important," Stonnill says.

The role of the office

While the crisis is testing just how far organisations’ flexible work policies can stretch, the intrinsic need for humans to connect is likely to override the urge to work at home full time. This places important focus on the role of the office.

“It’s just as likely that we will emerge from this period craving the face-to-face interaction that has been sorely missed, and with a greater understanding of how physical space influences the way we all feel and work each day,” says Alana Hannaford, director, project and development services, JLL.

Disruption to usual work life rhythms can also make it difficult for some people to switch off. The so-called ‘996 culture" is already a phenomenon among tech and startup employees which describes working from nine in the morning to nine at night, six days a week.

Social and professional isolation and loneliness are also recurring themes, and companies including Yahoo, IBM and Bank of America have in the past banned working from home on the basis that communication and collaboration is more effective when people are side by side.

“Workplace strategists and designers will have an ever-more important role to play in shaping the future of places and spaces where we can come together to connect, work productively and be inspired,” Hannaford says.

Inevitably, this experience will lead to a shift in how corporate real estate managers think about their office requirements, accelerating existing trends, and prompting new ones.

While the majority of people and companies are still in a state of confusion given the rapid adjustment, various options will come into focus, says James Palmer, joint head of leasing in Victoria, JLL.

“The value of an office as a place to share information and connect will only increase, and one trend that will become more prominent is the hub and spoke model, where a company has a central office and several satellite offices for staff to work from. I think there’ll be fresh consideration given to what and where those satellite elements are, especially given technology has proven largely reliable,” Palmer says.

He adds: “Companies will find they need to adapt quickly to a whole new world and build their business, and more importantly their company culture, in a much more evolutionary, virtual and flexible way.”