Reinventing the workplace to meet employee expectations

16 December 2020 Consultancy.com.au 5 min. read

A divided workplace: as Australian businesses consider returning to the office as usual, many employees are keen to stay flexible with their working arrangements. A new BCG report elaborates on the workplace dilemma. 

With the vaccine rollout already under way in several markets, attention is shifting to life after the pandemic. Core to these discussions is the question of work, and what it will look like in the new normal. Against this backdrop, Boston Consulting Group surveyed more than a thousand employees and executives in October, for insights in how they plan to proceed.

For Australian businesses, the reflex appears to be returning to the office. A third are already back, while BCG’s report reveals that 75% will have a lion’s share of their workforce back in the office after Christmas. Of the rest, the overwhelming majority will return to business-as-usual once the vaccine has been rolled out and the virus contained.

Wide variety of return-to-work plans for australian organisations

Implicit in these timelines is the assumption that the five-day office week as a concept is still relevant – a statement with which 85% of employees disagree. Only around 20% of these are gunning for no office at all, while the rest are happy with ‘hybrid working’ arrangements – some days in the office and some at home.

An explanation of these attitudes can be found in how virtual working has evolved over the course of 2020. BCG has been tracking workforce sentiment in waves all year, with surveys conducted in March, June and most recently in October. Attitudes have changed at each point, as employees and employers learn more about virtual working.

Back in March, the novelty of working from home was still exciting, as businesses found creative new ways to operate and employees enjoyed more free time. Come June, employees were starting to miss the social interaction with co-workers, while businesses were grappling with the idea of virtual working as a longer-term phenomenon – seeking ways to sustain productivity.

Expectation gap between employees and employers

Both employers and businesses have since been in a conundrum of sorts since. For businesses, virtual working has proved relatively viable, with the added advantage of cutting overhead costs down to nil. At the same time, managing a virtual workforce is a new challenge – one that requires a host of new strategies, not to mention investments in digital infrastructure. Also, certain core functions can only be performed physically, while many also value formal, in-person interactions with their workforce.

Employees have come to enjoy the flexibility that comes with virtual working, although there are drawbacks in terms of distractions and isolation. “Remote working does come with its own challenges, and we know that many people have reported negative experiences working from home, as result of feeling disconnected from their peers,” explained Managing Director and Partner at BCG in Sydney, Chris Mattey.

Reinventing the office

As both sides weigh these pros and cons, perceptions on the importance of an office appear to have polarised. “Employees very much see the office as a place to connect socially and collaborate with their peers, whereas the majority of companies still see the office as a place to work, hold meetings and undertake training,” noted Mattey.

The disparity between what matters to employees and what employersare focused on

According to him, the onus is on employers to move with the tide. “BCG predicts those companies that continue to offer flexibility in where and when their staff can work will be the ones that attract and retain the best talent, and as a result remain competitive in the market.” 

The fact is that employees in Australia are reluctant to go back to five-day office working, and have very different expectations from an office space. “Understanding what employees want from the office is not only key to keeping them happy and engaged, but also in fostering environments where staff can be most productive.”

“Businesses obviously also still need to operate effectively, though, so leading organisations in new ways of working are encouraging teams themselves to work out where they can get the best outcomes both for the business and each individual.” The question is one of balance, and reinvention.

“We encourage companies to re-imagine what their offices spaces could be used for and how they are designed, for instance, creating more spaces and corridors where employees can bump in to each other and socialise – at an appropriate physical distance, of course. it is a delicate balance, and companies must continue to monitor the mental health of their employees and the cultural decay that can come about as a result of people not getting to socialise with their colleagues,” concluded Mattey.