Flexible working here to stay but alarm bells are ringing as we exit the pandemic

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Source: Unsplash/Sigmund.

For the first time, flexible working is poised to be the predominant way of working for Australia’s CBD workers once the pandemic is behind us. But a new national survey of Australian knowledge workers, conducted by the Centre for the New Workforce at Swinburne University of Technology, should raise alarm bells as we start to plan our long-term return to the office.

Almost every worker we surveyed wants some form of flexible arrangements. When asked the ideal number of days of work each week in the office post pandemic: home-based workers want 1.5 days each week, office-based workers 3.7 days, and flexible workers 2.8 days.

Flexible work Swinburne research 1

Source: supplied.

And this is not just a nice-to-have; flexible working is emerging as a deal breaker. More than two in five knowledge workers (43%) said they would leave their employer if not offered flexible working arrangements for an employer who did.

Flexible work days in office Swinburne

Source: supplied.

 

But despite the rapid and growing expectations of almost all workers for flexible work, there are significant alarm bells that demand attention before we begin returning to the office.

Based on the experience of the last three months of work, flexible workers:

  • Feel the least connected to their organisation;
  • Feel the least supported and trusted at work;
  • Have the lowest levels of meaning and purpose at work; and
  • Report being the least able to work effectively and get things done.

To be competitive, to improve long-term productivity and to support employee wellbeing heading into another tumultuous year, employers need to look beyond the ‘how’ of flexible working and look at the ‘why’.

Flexible work dealbreaker Swinburne

Source: supplied.

Part of the solution is to prioritise work ideal for the home versus ideal for the office.

Consistent with the recent Productivity Commission report, we find home-based working is generally good for individual productivity — routine work, coordinating and completing tasks with teams, maintaining business as usual output. This should be the focus of home-based work in flexible arrangements.

By contrast the office must increasingly be where workers get to connect, collaborate, create and learn. Informal chats, teamwork, working across the organisation and brainstorming new ideas were all highlighted by workers as tasks that would be better performed in an office setting and may hold the key to effective flexible arrangements.

Overall, our research suggests we can give employees and employers what they want and need while hastening the return of CBD economies and sustainable corporate growth, by reimagining the office around human interactions that support meaningful connections, improve wellbeing, while driving value creation and productivity.

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