5 minute read 26 Jun 2020
Man working with laptop in remote place sat on fallen tree

Reverting to BAU is easy, but easy doesn’t always pay

Authors

Matt Lovegrove

EY Asia-Pacific Markets and BD Leader, People Advisory Services Partner

Develops and deploys talent. Husband. Two great sons. Former rugby player. Squash player.

Juliet Andrews

Partner, People Advisory Services, Ernst & Young LLP

Leader in solving complex workforce challenges. Inspired by the future of work. Mother to three teenagers. Greatest skill is managing time.

5 minute read 26 Jun 2020

The habits and trappings that come with work as we’ve known it can be difficult to forgo. But as organisations start bringing people back to the office, there’s bigger wins at stake for those willing to double down on what has been learned from the greatest remote working experiment in history. 

The World Economic Forum Global Risk Report stated in January that, “as existing health risks resurge and new ones emerge, humanity’s past successes in overcoming health challenges are no guarantee of future results.” It’s a sentiment worthwhile adding to the mix for organisations trying to run a cost benefit analysis on crystal ball gazing. Will a vaccine for COVID-19 eventuate, how long will it take, what happens if the scientists fail? 

So far, organisations fall into three basic buckets. Those that assume things will return to normal imminently and see no harm in doing things just as they had before; those that believe a vaccine will enable things to return to normal within the next 12-18 months and so are ‘riding out’ the disruption on the assumption they’ll revert to doing things just as they had before. Or, those hedging that things will never return to normal, whether because a vaccine for COVID-19 isn’t possible, or because they expect new threats to arise with increasing regularity, as the World Economic Forum warns. 

Where you fall on this spectrum denotes what impact the great remote working experiment is likely to have on your decision making. Decisions around implementing formal training programs for managers to run entirely remote teams, to spending capital (or not) on redesigning workspaces, renegotiating commercial leases, or completely overhauling operating models, leadership priorities and organisational culture.

The risk, EY partner Matt Lovegrove says, is that by reverting to type, businesses will forsake huge benefits that flow from rethinking not just why, but how, they work. “There’s a strong muscle memory for people which is  understandable given this is about emotions and psychology.”    

They’ll talk about the successes they’ve had with remote working, and see the benefits flowing through in terms of productivity improvements or employee engagement they want to sustain, but then talk in terms of ‘when we’re back in the office’, rather than saying let’s double down and embed what we’ve gained.
Matt Lovegrove
EY Asia-Pacific Markets and BD Leader, People Advisory Services Partner

What are the gains? 

Increased communication between leadership and teams, and the same with peer to peer communication is one benefit of the work from home experience. But leaders, particularly those who worked in more traditional structures before the pandemic, are searching for ways to sustain the new levels of transparency. 

New approaches to flexible work, compelled in the first instance by the lockdown, are now an opportunity for more conservative workplaces to become employers of choice through designing and implementing new flexible work policies – not just flexibility to work remotely but for one’s work structure in terms of days, or hours worked or buying flex leave. 

“There’s more to flexible work than giving someone a laptop and saying, work wherever you want,” Lovegrove says. “People have done well to make changes, and to adapt quickly, whether that’s moving entire workforces to remote working within days,and doing so in some instances where there wasn’t even a strong IT platform to support that move,” he says.  

“For others, it’s a dawning realisation that contrary to what you assume, there may be a large cohort of workers who don’t want to return to the traditional office environment.” Or, for that matter, that a traditional office is what businesses should be aiming for. 

Even without the onslaught of changed behaviour and operating models brought on by the current pandemic, there is considerable value for organisations to be perceived (and act) as forward thinking and flexible. Those requiring all staff to be in the office all day, every day, risk being viewed as dinosaurs that will be left behind in a rapidly shifting work environment. 

“We have organisations that were already looking at $30 million projects to rethink everything from provision of HR services, to how to better listen to their people, break down silos and business units, and re-think their workforce structures. And, crucially, the skills they need, not just for the post-pandemic world but new skills full stop,” Lovegrove says. 

“You’d assume that’s something organisations would put on hold, but we’re seeing some bring the start date for wholesale change forward. It’s that cliché of in for a penny, in for a pound.”  

Comfort in the familiar

While the opportunity for a reimagined workforce, and workspace is enticing, EY partner and psychologist Dr Juliet Andrews cautions that flexibility has been on the agenda for a couple of decades and while there’s been some success, there is still a strong cultural bias in our institutions  against flexible work.

This situation means the challenging work will be around what leaders need to do differently and questions around fundamental change for the organisation.
Dr. Juliet Andrews
Partner, People Advisory Services, Ernst & Young LLP

She says most businesses are proud about how quickly they have moved to remote work. The idea of a ten per cent change becoming business-as-usual is manageable but probably not 100 per cent change. “Unless we consciously work against it, our tendency will be to say, great, the pandemic’s over, we can go back to 'work', which means 'back to the office'.” But, it may not be easy.

“We spend a lot of our time trying to encourage clients to do things to prepare themselves for a future that hasn’t happened yet. There are a number of external factors which are likely to effect how we work, the pandemic had been one we are not immediately prepared for, there are others we know are coming. It’s in your best interests to prepare, but we also know few organisations will invest in something that’s a hypothetical,” Andrews says. 

Instead, we need to consider that the benefits of embedding and accelerating change go beyond merely being better prepared for the next large-scale disruption. Changing that mindset is the first step in being proactive about deliberately making new work habits and organisational structures stick. 

Embedding new work habits

One of the most familiar misapprehensions about remote workforces is the detrimental impact it has on the synchronicity of the watercooler – those moments that are spontaneous and unexpected. Or the challenge teams have in overcoming the trust biases that comes with virtual onboarding; or the disadvantage new or junior staff may perceive in not being able to access the learning by osmosis that occurs in shared workspaces. 

Technology cant yet solve these issues but the data and analytics it creates, through tools such as Microsoft’s Workplace Intelligence suite, go a significant way to offsetting the downside, and can drive efficiencies and better processes at the same time. 

Workplace Analytics collates anonymised data on individual behaviours so it’s not about scrutiny or surveillance, or punitive measures. It can be overlaid with organisational data to test hypotheses about how effectively the workforce is operating. Crucially though, the data can be used to trigger ‘nudges’ to change individual behaviour – whether that’s to remind people to take breaks, or reach out to suggested people in an effort to replicate that watercooler effect and create trust.  

It also provides insights for leaders to see how many one-on-ones are happening in their teams, to keep an eye on engagement, and identify staff who might be at risk of isolation, or conversely, overcommunicating to compensate for physical distance.  As stories begin to emerge about burnout, employers need to be able to identify leading indicators of burnout. Data showing an increased work week span, lack of quiet days, and decreased network size are all signs and can help organisations head off any potential health and wellbeing ramifications of  ‘always on’ culture of flexible working. 

Irrespective of the capabilities of the technology, for Andrews, trust remains core to the success of any flexible work policy. “Empathy, authenticity and credible logic are the three pillars of trust,” she says. “Authenticity has gone up because you’ve got leaders who are more transparent and frequent in their communications than ever before. 

“And we are seeing into each other’s homes, and taking meetings wearing our gym gear, so we’ve become much more open about ourselves which also helps with authenticity,” she says.  

“But I wonder if empathy has gone down because what we’re hearing from a lot of people is that they’re finding these online conversations very transactional, even when they’re scheduled as coffee catch ups, because there’s no longer that watercooler element of just shooting the breeze with a colleague that wanders by.”

For organisations willing to embed change triggered, or escalated by the pandemic, these challenges aren’t insurmountable. Planning and awareness goes a long way to smoothing the transition, as some of Australia’s biggest companies who already run large remote workforces, attest. One in particular is expecting it’s staff will reduce average days in office from about 2.5 to just over 1.5, showing that far from being a phase, full flexibility as a core component of culture, rather than just a branding exercise, is only growing in popularity. 

Summary

With the return to workplaces becoming a reality for many organisations, will these organisations implement changes they have learned from the crisis in hopes of improving competitive advantage and employee experience or try and return to 'normal'.

About this article

Authors

Matt Lovegrove

EY Asia-Pacific Markets and BD Leader, People Advisory Services Partner

Develops and deploys talent. Husband. Two great sons. Former rugby player. Squash player.

Juliet Andrews

Partner, People Advisory Services, Ernst & Young LLP

Leader in solving complex workforce challenges. Inspired by the future of work. Mother to three teenagers. Greatest skill is managing time.