Future of Work Series Part 2 - The afterlife of the office: Changing workplace culture and how to respond

By Robert Half on 17 August 2020

As the impact of COVID-19 continues to ripple through the Australian market, Robert Half organised the ‘Workplace of the Future’ roundtable and invited six business leaders to a virtual panel discussion on COVID-19’s implications on businesses as well as evolving priorities that may shape future growth opportunities.

The panellists included:

  • Andrew Bain, CEO at Recreo, a cloud-based administration platform for the superannuation industry;
  • Andrew Myers, VP APAC & Global Digital Strategy at WorkJam, an employee engagement platform for hourly employees;
  • Simon Turner, CIO at AxiCorp, a provider of margin Forex trading services for retail and institutional markets;
  • Hayden Vowell, Financial Planning & Business Performance Lead at Culture Amp, an employee engagement, retention and performance platform;
  • Richard Raj, Director, Principal Consultant at Knight's Move Consulting, a consulting firm specialising in Lean Digital services;
  • Clinton Marks, Director at Robert Half.

The roundtable was hosted by David Jones, Senior Managing Director at Robert Half.

Part 2 - The afterlife of the office: Changing workplace culture and how to respond

COVID-19 forced even the most progressive and flexible companies to reimagine their working arrangements to ensure the health and wellbeing of their teams without compromising on corporate culture. Most significant for many businesses was the partial or complete move to remote working arrangements, and in turn, a decentralised corporate culture that challenged management styles, internal communication and collaboration procedures, as well as individual engagement and morale.

While the all-encompassing shift to remote work may have been a massive culture shock, it appears many employees have embraced this change in a short period of time. A recent Culture Amp study found that 85% of employees felt their team would benefit from some degree of remote working in the future, while only 47% were energised about returning to the workplace1.

In article 2 of a 5-part series covering this event, we asked these leaders to consider the key changes they’ve experienced in their approach towards the physical office space as it relates to their employees and how they maintain workplace culture at a distance:

The traditional office structure is a thing of the past

Without a vaccine, there is no clear date at which office life will return to ‘normal’. With this in mind, a consensus among the panellists was that companies will need to create long-term attitudinal and procedural adjustments to their ‘office’ to meet changing employee expectations while upholding positive team morale and engagement.

From a corporate culture perspective, Richard Raj points out that it will be challenging to make a business case to employees for a complete return to the office as “COVID-19 has demonstrated that it is possible to complete work from home en masse”. Similarly, Andrew Myers has seen the stigmas surrounding working from home have been quashed as productivity and engagement have remained relatively stable under remote conditions, when also allowing for the pressures of sudden change and a pandemic.

For many, particularly in global teams such as Simon Turner’s, the employee drive to retain remote working arrangements is tied to hygiene and safety concerns. He states: “If there was no virus, there might not be as many people looking to remain at home. This makes it difficult to determine what we do about remote working in the future based on the current exceptional circumstances.”

By contrast, the panellists identified the flexibility and autonomy remote working provide – for example reducing commute times, saving on fuel, or adapting the working schedule around fitness or domestic chores – as a driver for employees to retain their current working arrangements.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ arrangement

While remote work was a mandatory shift for the majority of office workers, it has highlighted that individual workplace engagement and motivation are triggered by varying conditions. For Hayden Vowell, the effect of remote working arrangements “has been one of the key indicators from this – it changes by person, it changes by team, it changes by location”.

Clinton Marks adds “what is empowering for one person may not have the same effect for another. Giving individuals greater creative control of their work and projects by focusing on the outcome rather than the method can help create a healthy workplace, outside of the office”.

While some may reciprocate the time they save in a commute with additional time online, Andrew Bain has also encountered those who “are motivated and whose performance are driven by being in the office who probably aren’t going to excel in a remote working environment”. He sees this as an opportunity to really understand employees on an individual level and craft much bespoke engagement techniques to drive their performance.

With this shift, Andrew Myers predicts that “to become an employer of choice now, you're going to need to offer that flexibility and become a truly digital workplace”.

Relearning empathy at a distance

While COVID-19 has universally impacted employees, there are certain segments and demographics for whom this impact will be more challenging or significant. Collectively, it was understood that effective management through remote working required attention and empathy towards individual circumstances with respect to the adverse impact of isolation and loneliness on productivity and engagement.

On a macro-level, remote working has also served to highlight the specific role the physical office space plays in how individuals structure their work life balance. Andrew Bain says “There's no longer a clear break between work and home. People sometimes use work as a distraction from other life problems and there's some real risk that we've got some blind spots about how they’re coping because we're not seeing people every day.”

On the flip side, for those that live alone, the social interaction that occurs in a workplace can also be a significant part of their professional experience and without it, they are at risk of losing a critical part of their social interactions and risk loneliness – particularly under strict lockdown periods which limit contact with friends and family.

Ultimately, current circumstances require peers and leaders to step up in terms of the one-on-one conversations with colleagues by engaging with them on a personal level, for instance, enquiring about how they are and not just how their work is progressing in order to cultivate a more meaningful dialogue.

Understanding the role of the physical office in corporate culture

Businesses whose retention strategy relied heavily on perks or in-office offerings are likely to risk lower engagement if they do not adapt to a remote offering. An issue that many returned to throughout the roundtable is the fragmenting of organisational culture and how to effectively maintain the social and personal dynamics that often feed into a strong company culture without the ease of socialising that comes with physical interaction.

In order to bridge the disconnect that can occur without physical and social interactions in the short term, the resolution is likely to lie in utilising technology and digital communication channels to “keep a finger on the pulse of what is happening within your employment stack”, as Hayden Vowell suggests. Whether this concerns engagement surveys and questionnaires to better understand and respond to employee needs at a distance, regular calls for non-work related conversations or introducing multiple communication streams outside of email to foster casual dialogue and connection, creating a truly digital native workplace where employees can connect on a number of levels is key to emulating the proximity of the physical office space.

Looking ahead to a post COVID-19 landscape, Richard Raj believes a staggered approach to office scheduling will become normalised. This would be a balance of set days in office for socialising, collaboration, and team meetings alongside an allotment of days for employees to decide where they work to complete executional, procedural, or remote tasks.

As individuals and organisations alike navigate the greatest period of disruption this workforce has known, the importance of empathetic relationship management has come to the fore. While the pandemic has accelerated a growing corporate trend of flexible working arrangements, it has also decentralised company culture, requiring leadership to reconcile the role that community plays in their organisational structure without in-person interactions.

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