How will flexible working change in a post-COVID-19 environment?

Penny Flanders
By Penny Flanders | 20 April 2020
Penny Flanders

From becoming more tech-savvy to shifting the way the offices of the future are designed, Spinach’s Penny Flanders believes the current state of affairs is set to alter the ways many of us work for the better.

Over the past few weeks, the COVID-19 health pandemic has forced all types of businesses to adapt to functioning with remote workforces. Many have stepped up to the challenge. Some will succeed while others will fail. But the real question is how this will change the way we work well into the future.

The shift is already having an impact on our approach to technology. While Australians, in general, are fairly fast adopters of tech, many were yet to explore this new frontier. Hands up if you’ve been on a video call recently with a colleague or client who was in awe of how “modern” this all is?

From a tech perspective, we’re just getting started as businesses and staff (as well as grandparents, schools and just about everyone for that matter) tech up. It’s the push many needed to make the leap and while it may begin with video conferencing and file-sharing, these advances will have a roll-on effect to how we shop, exercise, eat, drink and socialise.

Technology aside, working from home will redefine the traditional working week. This may be the end of 9-5 for many businesses. As routine, trust and productive delivery of work from home are further evolved and established, traditional working hours will have no choice but to change.

As schedules are managed around bespoke agreements between supplier and service, there will be widespread ripple effects from less peak-hour traffic on the roads and people on public transport, to more dispersed appointment times for health services, retail shopping, stores, gyms and possibly even schooling. 

With people working more from home, office spaces will shrink and evolve. This will reduce business overheads as teams stagger their hours sharing desk space. There’s bound to be an impact on office design and this may even herald the return to secluded offices which has the bonus effect of helping to contain future germs.

Now that everyone has had a taste of what’s possible, working from home will be more accepted, respected and commonplace. For some time, a certain amount of guilt and ‘gratefulness’ has been associated with the practice overshadowing the long-term benefits for which range from staff retention to productivity and using ‘quiet-time’ effectively for better output.

A 2011 study by WorldatWork found that – even back then – companies with stronger cultures of flexibility experienced lower turnover and increased employee satisfaction, motivation and engagement.

Yet in 2013, the newly appointed CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, banned staff from working from home announcing: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.”

Was she right? Well, we’re about to find out. And while you may already disagree with her stance, Mayer touched on underlying issues which still need to be managed including businesses providing employees with the right guidance on how to create boundaries between work life and personal life, setting up a productive workspace and building relationships with customers and colleagues.

There undoubtedly needs to be an attitude and direction from the top that ensures individuals are responsible for their productivity and a strongly understood set of key values people are hired and work to. Without this trust, it won’t work.

Trust is key to any working relationship but it feels even more so when people are in their homes where distractions lurk around every corner. To combat this, process and structure are set to become an even more crucial part of business management to avoid the speed and quality sacrifices as people manage their own time. There needs to be clear working parameters so everyone knows how they are being measured and what is expected of them on a daily, weekly, and ongoing basis.

Establishing clear routines, check-ins and face to face connections to read the room and gauge emotional messaging will be more critical for relationships when working from afar. Emails get misinterpreted and taking the temperature in meetings is an important part of understanding the state of play.

Prior to COVID-19, at Spinach, like many other companies, we already practised flexible working arrangements such as working from home days, staggered start/finish times and shorter work weeks to accommodate child-care. We’ve always been about Productivity over Presenteeism.

However, this experience has pushed us to a whole new level testing our technical capabilities and communication methods.

And so far, it’s been a pleasant surprise. Everyone has respectfully risen to the occasion and rallied, going above and beyond to make this work. Our start and end of day check-ins are proving hilarious and productive and we come together more regularly to talk about our tasks and small wins of achievement for the day. Likewise with our clients who are going through the same challenges.

There’s a humility about it all and I feel even more united with my team. The situation is also serving to highlight some innovative ideas where there wouldn’t normally be the opportunity to collaborate. Ideas are sparking from all areas of the business as people realise the need to innovate to survive.

It’s heartening to think this experience is being shared by companies small and large right across the world which leads me to think that all of this will, in turn, reset work/life balance.

With extended flexibility and technology enabling us to work from home, life structure is bound to change. For some, this may come in the form of reduced commute times adding hours to their day (not to mention less stress in traffic). Hopefully, we’ll have more time for the things that really matter.

And I hope Melissa Mayer stands corrected. That out of all of this craziness, we will learn to become more tech-savvy, connected and rounded, happier and contented individuals in a post COVID world.

As one of my favourite memes this week stated: “Kinda feeling like the Earth just sent us all to our rooms to think about what we’ve done.”

Penny Flanders is the director of client services at Spinach.

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