“Do whatever it is you want to do”: How businesses are embracing hybrid work models as the office changes forever

mental wellbeing

Employment Hero chief people officer Alex Hattingh. Source: supplied.

It’s taken a pandemic to unseat the traditional office space from its dominant position in the work lives of most people, and businesses across Australia are now busy experimenting with new ways to operate that deliver the benefits of in-person collaboration with the flexibility of remote work.

It’s being called a ‘hybrid’ approach, where staff working at home on a routine basis is mixed with certain teams being cycled in and out of office spaces, or individuals booking spots in their own company’s office like one would a co-working space.

Employment Hero has done away with its old concept of the office altogether, opting to rename its physical spaces “hubs” in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. It’s part of a broader transition towards what chief people officer Alex Hattingh calls “remote-first” work.

“We’ve already had one employee who has already put their Sydney apartment on the market and purchased a house about four hours south closer to her parents,” Hattingh tells SmartCompany

From now on every role at Employment Hero will be able to be completed remotely, with physical office spaces serving primarily as spots for in-person collaboration or work social events, rather than being the primary place where things get done throughout the week.

The business typically has about 100 workers in its Sydney office, but is only hosting between 15-20 a time at the moment.

“Do whatever it is you want to do”

For Employment Hero, the purpose of the office has changed entirely over the course of the pandemic; there will be no more lined office spaces filled with workers. Instead, a cap has been placed on the number of people allowed in the company’s physical spaces at any one time to ensure physical distancing requirements are maintained at all times, and desks will be booked in advance in a manner more similar to a co-working space than a traditional office.

“You might want to come in the door, do some work, lunch with people, then drive home in a non-peak hour, go and pick your kids up from school, go to a yoga class, do whatever it is you want to do, and then log back on and do some work after that,” Hattingh explains.

Right now Employment Hero is organising who attends its hubs through a Google Sheet, but in the coming months the company intends to create an in-house application for staff to organise who’s working where at any given time.

A few months ago these steps would have placed the business in a minority of companies experimenting at the forefront of flexible work practices, but these days firms are racing towards the ‘future of work’ at lightning speed.

Over the course of the pandemic, many businesses have realised they can operate without an office space in the picture, and that confidence, coupled with the work health and safety considerations around returning an entire workforce to the office before a coronavirus vaccine is available, has surged appetite for decentralised models.

A survey of 1,000 workers published by Boston Consulting Group on Tuesday found between 41% and 60% of workers, depending on age bracket, would prefer to work from home at least a few days a week, with staff now considering more carefully why they need to be in an office for particular tasks.

A separate survey of 1000 Australian employees undertaken by RedBack Connect, also published on Tuesday, found 86% of staff want to continue working from home, at least for part of the week, into the foreseeable future.

There are still a range of benefits associated with heading into the office though, from informal social conversions to the benefits of formal collaboration and access to workplace technologies that may not be available in your average home office.

“Ultimately it’s your choice”

However, some companies are finding these in-person benefits can still be achieved with ‘hybrid’ models that prioritise remote work, and are utilising digital hangouts to fill the gaps.

Naomi J. Saba, general counsel at ASX-listed financial technology firm MoneyMe, tells SmartCompany staff at her company have also been embracing a hybrid approach to remote work.

MoneyMe has capped the number of staff that can be in its Sydney office at one time to 50% of capacity, meaning teams need to be rotated in and out of physical spaces throughout the week.

“Ultimately it’s your choice whether you come in, but even if you do come in, not everyone is going to be there,” Saba says.

MoneyMe general counsel Naomi Saba.

MoneyMe also has offices in Newcastle and in the Philippines, and is therefore dealing with different coronavirus restrictions across several jurisdictions. This has meant its work policies needed to be flexible enough to ensure all work could be conducted remotely if need be.

“The first thing we did is we said to everyone who was worried about their parents or loved ones or themselves that they’d never have to come to work ever until there is a cure,” Saba says.

For workers coming into the office, rotating COVID-19 ‘security teams’ are responsible for disinfecting surfaces around the office twice daily and conducting temperature checks on staff when they come in.

Anyone over 37.5 degrees celsius is told to go home.

“We’ve got a strict policy on illness, any illness at all, you’re exempt from the office, you just work from home,” Saba says.

Temperature checking staff may seem like an extreme step, but this is the new ‘COVIDSafe’ working world in action, and any business looking to return workers to physical spaces over the next year or so is likely going to need to take these things into account.

Risks abound with ‘hybrid work’: Consult widely with staff

This brave new world carries a series of long-term risks.

Farveh Farivar, a lecturer in management at University of Tasmania, has been undertaking research into how workers are responding to changes in workplace technology as businesses embrace remote work.

Farviar tells SmartCompany COVID-19 has pushed businesses across the country to adopting ‘hybrid’ work models but in reality it’s a tricky equation to get right.

“It has lots of negatives as well,” Farviar says. “Is your system really ready to handle virtual teams and managing virtual teams?”

“These are skills — not something you can implement with technology in one or two days.”

Farviar stresses the need for businesses to ensure they go beyond just asking workers to install software tools like Zoom or Slack.

While ‘hybrid’ and remote work models embrace flexibility, staff can easily become disenfranchised by the lack of a central physical space.

“We have to think about people react to changes, especially mentally,” Farviar says.

Farviar says switching back and forth between remote work and in-office duties could be jarring for many workers, who could have their routines constantly disrupted.

“Self discipline is a key concept here … you have to think what type of model you want to pursue, so I’d recommend talking to your workers.

“I talked to staff that had experienced this ‘hybrid’ method, and many said they prefer to just select a day or two from their calendars and stay at home, then spend the rest of the time in the office. ”

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