Grounded at home: what will the post-COVID-19 workplace look like?

When lockdown restrictions end, we look into whether less business travel, and more remote working and flexible hours will become the new norms for Australian business.

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Beyond the human toll, ‘business as usual’ has fallen victim to COVID-19. Will Australian businesses and workers lament the change, or can both gain from the experience?

Business air traffic control

In the pre-COVID-19 world, around 2.3 million Australians travelled by air at least once a year for work, racking up a cumulative 10.8 million trips annually, according to Roy Morgan Research’s Air Travel Report.

With the average flight costing $39 per 100km and an average interstate ticket costing $390 (and at least double that for a flexible fare), that added up to an annual business expense of around $4,680 per employee travelling monthly (10 per cent of the workforce).

But the COVID-19 lockdown has seen flying for work replaced by video-conference connections into ‘loungeroom boardrooms’.

The time efficiencies of video conferencing over flying are obvious. Then there’s its sheer agility – from meeting request to a virtual meeting in minutes. It’s practical too. Large groups can meet virtually and smaller teams can break off and re-group without the need for meeting rooms or conference spaces.

This all raises a big question: when travel restrictions are lifted, will there be the same kind of need for business travel?

Less air travel brings lower business expenses, less travel-related employee fatigue and higher per hour productivity due to maximising ‘desk time’. On the other hand, downsides might include a breakdown in interstate business relationships and, for businesses that need to physically demonstrate their products or services, a possible sales hit.

Is the short commute the new normal?

In 2016, only 4.7 per cent of Australian employees worked at home using technologies such as cloud-based software, according to the most recent ABS Census data. This despite a 2019 report from online recruiter Indeed showing that 68 per cent of Australian employers allowed remote working. Pre COVID-19, it appears that either employees weren’t taking up the offer of remote working or didn’t feel comfortable asking to do so, or employers weren’t actively encouraging the practice.

But with COVID-19 restrictions, suddenly a majority of the Australian workforce have experienced working from home. That’s the case for more than 30,000 NAB staff, and it’s been indicated the approach may continue in the future, specifically in terms of the need for fixed workspaces.

How will the remote working trend continue?

In a new report by Citrix, in collaboration with research institute OnePoll, 78 per cent of Australian office workers say they believe remote working is likely to become a new normal.

The survey explains that Australian workers see the time saved by not commuting as the greatest advantage of remote working. The benefit for businesses is that productivity seems not to have taken much of a hit, with 70 per cent of employees saying they are more productive from home and 38 per cent saying they work even longer hours.

From the employer perspective, 67 per cent say remote working has increased productivity, 64 per cent say it has improved morale and 51 per cent report significant operational cost savings. Only five per cent say working remotely has delivered no benefits.

Businesses prepare to flex

This pandemic has shown that workplaces can be far more flexible than many may have thought, and that digital communication is often easier and more effective than meeting physically. With COVID-19, work flexibility has become the new norm.

This may create opportunities for businesses that stick with flexible working, including access to skilled employees such as parents who otherwise might not work or mature-age university students looking to study while working part-time.

In return, they may gain a more loyal workforce and lower overheads due to reduced office leasing and associated office costs.

What are the challenges of flexible working?

Deadlines that fall outside working hours will require give and take on both sides. Sometimes, colleagues will need to step in and fill the gaps, which could create internal pressures and conflicts.

The bottom line is, businesses that want to make flexible practices work long term need clear policies around flexible hours, and employers and employees will need to understand that flexibility goes both ways.

How do businesses remain competitive with new ways of working?

  1. Making it official A model that builds flexibility and remote working into every employee contract
  2. Factoring it into values A culture that has well-defined values and employee objectives, and that makes it clear how we work and what we need to achieve together, to improve remote accountability
  3. Considering the wider team Partners, clients and suppliers with similar cultural ethos around working remotely – it’s no good having a client that wants to see everyone physically when you have a remote and flexible culture
  4. Monitoring its effectiveness Effective ways to capture data around remote working efficiency and effectiveness, such as employee satisfaction surveys and feedback sessions
  5. Communicating it Fixed internal communication structure so your business remains aligned to its mission
  6. Making it work Set occasions where all employees can attend town halls or all-agency meetings to learn the latest news