'Everyone is trying to get their head around the new reality'

15 March 2021 Consultancy.com.au 7 min. read

After more than a year of uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, many employers are still struggling to adapt. According to Paul Ventura, Managing Director of Collagis, the nature of work has changed and organisations who acknowledge the fact “remote working is here to stay” will be best prepared to thrive in the new normal.

During the Covid-19 crisis, most employees have spent the best part of a year working remotely and virtually, as non-essential businesses have been shuttered. Over the last year, firms have been exposed to both the surprise benefits of remote work, and the unseen challenges sustained home-working presents. In spite of this, many firms are still sailing in uncharted territory, as they are unclear on how to adapt their long-term business strategies around what they initially thought would be temporary changes.

Summing up the situation, Paul Ventura, of management consulting firm Collagis, which specialises in workforce and organisational effectiveness, recently told the Australian Financial Review, “I don’t think there’s been a bigger or more profound adjustment, certainly not since the industrial revolution… everybody is trying to get their head around what the new reality is going to look like.”

Paul Ventura, Managing Director, Collagis

He added that the “nature of work” has changed and “remote working is here, and here to stay” – something which many employers may still be resistant to. According to the consulting leader, while most employers are satisfied that the working-from-home experiment has been successful, they need to move further than this simple recognition as the economy reopens.

“What’s happening now has been possible for a long time in terms of available technology but what’s changed is the mindset around the workplace and employee wellbeing,” Ventura explained to the AFR. “For many workers the commute will no longer be part of their daily life. For them, work has changed from somewhere you go to something that you do.”

Positives

According to Ventura, in a separate piece on Collagis’ own blog, there are a number of positive and negative aspects of home-working which businesses will need to factor into their plans for the coming period. First and foremost, that loss of a commute means that staff and employers alike can recover some of the “most precious resource” of all: time.

“Finding another one or two hours a day has been a tremendous gift of the pandemic,” Ventura stated. “Giving time back for balancing family and home life, or extra productive work time, is a big advantage. The consequence of no workplace to go to means work changes from somewhere you go to something that you do. The boss must trust that you are working (a difficult transition for some) and the focus must shift to outcome rather than face time.”

At the same time, this has helped lead to a boost in employee productivity. Initially many employers were worried that remote working would lead to a dramatic fall in productivity – however various research pieces have since suggested that due to the improved work-life balance and extra time for value-adding activity that remote working has helped employees find, the contrary has been the case.

According to the Harvard Business Review, researchers studied knowledge workers in 2013 and again during the 2020 pandemic lockdown, and found that they spent 12% less time drawn into large meetings and 9% more time interacting with customers, while the number of tasks they rated as tiresome dropped from 27% to 12%.

Elsewhere, this enables organisations to make essential bottom line savings – something which could prove crucial as the global economy continues to flag. The company benefits from a massively reduced costs in office space, and on top of this can dispense with other, less effective and less popular means of saving on space.

Dynamic office spaces and practices like hot-desking aimed at reducing office footprint cost, but employees often openly disliked such approaches as it allowed them less personal space and comfort during work. By contrast, working from home can help counter the dislocation, disconnection and privacy concerns cited by employees as their main concern with hot-desk environments.

Finally, Ventura suggested that remote working is helping accelerate the move to digital. He expanded, “The pandemic has forced a rapid and accelerated shift to many superior digital ways of working. Corporate travel whilst not possible right now, will never be the same again. Companies have learned, through necessity, new ways of working, and the reduced travel bills and non-productive travel time are now pains of a by-gone era. Companies are re-imagining the old ways of doing things and recreating processes to operate more efficiently and effectively in the new world.”

Lows

Of course there have also been impacts on employee wellbeing which firms need to reckon with moving forward. First of all, not everyone’s house is ideal as a workspace, and organisations will need to continue to work with them to adapt in the future. According to Ventura, this can be “anything from ventilation and natural lighting, to the right seating, screens, hardware and software to do their job effectively. And even more so, how to ensure safety, security and work/home balance, to create an environment conducive to wellbeing.”

Research is showing that employees are struggling to switch off and create boundaries between personal and office spaces, as well as experiencing increased mental anxiety and increased financial security concerns in the face of the pandemic. As such, Ventura suggested that employee wellbeing needs to be an ever-present consideration of bosses in the current environment, and companies must be aware that transitioning to remote working is still a work in progress, in need of constant fine-tuning, rather than simply assuming this can go on as they are indefinitely.

“The social life of employees is radically altered in remote working, creating a void that remains unfilled,” he said, citing one way in which wellbeing is coming under pressure. “This is in part due to lockdown restrictions, but also because the opportunity for employees to establish friendships at the office has not yet been effectively replaced in remote working. Employees working in the same office also had the greatest potential for collaboration and creativity due to constant proximity.”

In response to this, many companies are exploring how they can leverage existing office space to provide social and collaboration opportunities in ‘the new world.’ In the future, organisations have to consider how to embed and manage culture with remote working, to ensure a company’s culture can continue to be experienced in our home offices and digital interactions – in particular, with new staff inductions, which can make employees feel part of an organisation when they may not visit a physical location or meet anyone face-to-face.

Future

Looking ahead, Ventura suggested that ultimately dealing with change is about striking the right balance between the benefits of a flexible workplace and the needs of the organisation. The good news, he believes, is that whatever form the “new normal” takes, the end result will be “more efficient and more productive” businesses.

“The working-from-home experience has created the momentum for change but organisations can’t afford to be too aggressive in pursuing new ways of working,” he concluded.