Related Expertise: People Strategy, Organization Strategy, Culture and Change Management

Finding Balance in the Future of Work

Lessons from Australia’s Top Chief People Officers

By Chris Mattey and Nicole Sibilio

This article was written in collaboration with the Future Forum.

There has been much discussion and debate concerning the ‘Future of Work’ over the past two and a half years. But with most of the more serious COVID-19 restrictions now more than six months behind us, it’s fair to say that new ways of working are no longer just future considerations – the Future of Work in Australia is here, now.

COVID-19 forced many organisations to adapt to flexible ways of working, which has redefined employee expectations about how and where work can get done. A new bar has been set for what flexibility is and could be, which is already playing out in the war for talent.

While there is demand from employees to retain this flexibility, employers are observing that remote and hybrid ways of working are disrupting the connections and relationships people naturally build when they co-locate.

Organisations and leaders need to build capability and muscle to be able to adapt to this new environment and keep adapting into the future. But this transition has exposed a multitude of challenges that most organisations are steadily working their way through. No company has discovered the perfect circumstances and processes that both mitigate these challenges and adapt to changing expectations, conditions and needs.

To address the ongoing challenge of how Australian organisations can evolve their hybrid working models, BCG has collaborated with the Future Forum over the past nine months to bring together over 20 of Australia’s top Chief People Officers in a regular working group. Future Forum is a research consortium launched by Slack with founding partners Boston Consulting Group, MillerKnoll and Management Leadership for Tomorrow to help companies redesign work in the new digital-first workplace.

Employee expectations have changed. In Future Forum's latest Pulse survey, 81% of Australian knowledge workers expressed a desire for location flexibility, and 95% for schedule flexibility - among the highest results of their global survey. And since 70% of employees say they're open to new roles if their employer doesn't afford the flexibility they need, flexibility has become a core component of the employer/employee relationship.

Reflecting on the past two years, and looking ahead to the future, this group of leaders has outlined six of the most important considerations for Australian businesses contemplating their hybrid working models, including some of the practical actions they have taken and lessons they have learnt.

Lean In to leadership

The importance of leadership has increased exponentially since the onset of COVID-19. Leaders have always been explicitly accountable for the direction and delivery of work. But leaders’ accountabilities are much much expansive than this. They are expected to be mental health counsellors, expert negotiators, and cheerleaders, and they must often perform these roles through the medium of a computer screen.

Leaders are the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge in navigating the Future of Work. While some leaders have adapted to this new environment, many have struggled. Traditional ways to manage based on attendance or in-person monitoring are no longer working and many leaders are seeking clear and fixed policies from HR that they can deliver to their teams quickly and get back to business.

Leaders also set the tone for the organisation and must act deliberately.

Unfortunately, the environment we are working in is changing all the time, not only due to the pandemic, but also due to more frequent large-scale climate events, and unprecedented geo-political and economic uncertainty. A set and forget approach with hard rules won’t work. To the workforce, leaders are the face of an organisation and they need to be able to navigate their teams through this dynamic environment.

Across Australia and around the world, organisations are getting behind their leaders with practical tips, tricks, training and tools to help with the migration to new skillsets and new behaviours that are so important to new ways of working.

Be Intentional in Driving Trust, Belonging and Connection

At the heart of leadership success is trust, a factor that sees many leaders thrive. However, some leaders struggle with this in practice. They may trust their teams less, control by observation, be fixed in their ways because “this is how it’s always been done”, and tend to be more hierarchical and authoritarian in their approach.

Recent joint research between the St. Gallen Symposium and Boston Consulting Group, “Trust Matters within Organisations”, outlines three actionable measures for leaders to build trust. First, transparency is key. Trust increases if the organisation’s goals are aligned with a coherent overall strategy and leaders communicate authentically in an honest, realistic and targeted manner. Second, enablement of the organisation with the least surveillance and control mechanisms creates ownership and fosters positive behaviours. Third, leaders should promote a culture of trust. Reciprocal trust flourishes when leaders embrace their own vulnerability, trust their team members by default and orchestrate informal relations of trust.

Trust can improve team members’ self-reported productivity by as much as 50% and mean better performance of leaders and teams alike. Team members in trustful organisations report fewer sick days and experience less negative stress.

People want a strong sense of purpose in the work they’re doing and to know that their work is valuable and making a difference. Organisations need to actively promote a sense of connection, inclusion and belonging to attract and retain their top talent. Especially important is to keep an eye on proximity bias, as there is increasing evidence that some demographics are experiencing poorer outcomes than others.

Being intentional is then key. Rather than just turning up and hoping to bump into people, hybrid working required much more deliberate and thoughtful planning. Afterall, if the purpose of coming together is to socially connect and collaborate face-to-face, then this only works if everyone is present at the same time.

Adopt a Choice-Led, Team-First Approach

2020 saw the unintentional rise of individualism. People were, understandably, most concerned for themselves at a time when many lost their jobs or had their hours slashed, had children who moved from classroom to home-based learning, and who had to think carefully about and prioritise their health. As new channels gave us a glimpse into peoples’ home lives, it became clear that everyone lived and worked in different circumstances and faced different challenges. What was and is important to some was completely irrelevant to others.

Implementing genuinely new ways of working that suit all people, situations and demographics is impossible. No organisation has completely solved the challenge of how to enable flexible work arrangements that meet the needs and wants of each individual employee as well as the needs of the organisation in which they work. And even if one organisation managed to do so, it’s unlikely the same approach would work for another.

Changing behaviours is also complex, with all organisations needing to learn as they found what worked and what didn’t in practical execution environments.

This has all resulted in many organisations favouring ‘choice-led’ approaches to flexible working models. Where guidelines, guardrails or broad direction is given by the organisation but teams are largely left to make their own decisions about when and where they work. There are many different versions of this advice ranging from Telstra’s “Work from Anywhere” and Atlassian’s “Team Anywhere” policies, through to Tesla’s requirement for all employees to be in the office 40 hours per week. Most organisations are landing somewhere in between, providing guidance to indicate the approximate amount of time they would expect people and teams to co-locate but stopping short of hard rules and blanket mandates, then allowing teams to self-organise and make their own choices.

The team at Atlassian (Credit to Peter Scobie, featured by Dom Price on LinkedIn) have characterised this simply into the “3 F's”:

  • Fixed. Elements that are hard rules, typically policy or procedure, often contractual in nature, and therefore not impossible but much harder to move
  • Flexible. Elements have guardrails, but it’s then open to teams and individuals to optimise within
  • Free. Where there isn’t a precedent or established way, or maybe there is just more value in starting with a blank piece of paper

The success of this approach is dependent on a focus on managing based on the right business outcomes. A bigger focus is then put on what teams are delivering versus the amount of time they are turning up to the office.

However, organisations and leaders should also be unapologetic about bringing their people together, provided they are transparent in explaining the benefits so employees understand why business leaders make the choices that they do. Most people are rational and willing to adapt if they understand why changes are implemented, and how the change will have a greater impact on them, their teams, and the operation of the business.

Finally, the unlock to the complex negotiation of hybrid ways of working is the team construct – one that is practically best placed to trade-off the needs of the individual, team and business.

At the team level, high frequency interactions are needed to be successful. Within teams, it’s essential that clear social contracts/team norms are set. This helps balance the needs of individual team members with the needs of the whole team and the wider business, but for this to work in practice it needs to be discussed and evolved on a very regular basis.

To enable these high frequency interactions BCG uses what we call our Predictability, Teaming and Open Communication (PTO) framework, which allows our people to communicate their individual scheduling expectations prior to the start of a project, and to check in with each other regularly as the project progresses. Our 60-second all staff weekly survey receives, on average, about an 85% response rate and is accompanied by a weekly check-in with the whole team. Here we discuss improvements to our ways of working as well as the specific personal needs for the week ahead, so that we can balance these with the needs of our clients. This system is well recognised to drive tangible change in employee engagement and work-life balance. More recently Atlassian has implemented a similar system fortnightly across all its teams.

Remember the Deskless Workers

For all the conversation around desk-based workers, and the “right number of days of the week in the office”, we often neglect to discuss deskless workers. These are, in fact, the majority of the population that work in roles that simply cannot be done from home – frontline hospital workers, hospitality, mining and operations, retail and so on.

A recent BCG survey found that in Australia 36% of these workers are at risk of leaving their roles in the next six months. This is as high as 45% for the GenZ population of 18 to 25 year olds. A real risk that organisations are already realising is the divide that is being created between the haves and the have-nots of hybrid/remote work.

For organisations to retain deskless workers requires real effort to reframe an employee value proposition that will attract and retain the best talent. For example, reframing flexibility to be less about place and more about shift patterns or holiday structures. Organisations will also need to consider expanding benefits to include what employees truly value and provide more comprehensive and thoughtful career growth and upskilling.

And in some instances where hybrid working might seem impossible, challenging the status-quo may also reveal opportunities.

In many ways, desk-based workers can learn from the teaming models of deskless workers. They have always operated in shift-based environments, needing to collaborate to cover for each other when needed.

Keep Listening to Your People–Experiment and Iterate, Using Facts and Data

Given the pace of change and volatility in our environment, it’s critical that organisations routinely ask and respond to what is working and not working. Engaging employees in two-way communications ensures that time and effort is spent on the things that matter most to your people, and it also gives employees a sense of control in these tumultuous times. Leaders who are more visible, take the time to speak with people, listen to what staff need, and demonstrate commitment and action will be more likely to win the war for talent in their own organisations, and the market more broadly.

There are many opinions regarding what workplaces and work models might look like in Australia. Few of these, however, are backed by real data and facts about what is working and what is not. Part of the challenge lies in what to measure. Productivity is famously hard to accurately get a handle on, even in more structured roles such as contact centres or software engineering. Metrics can often be gamed by employees if too organisations pay too much attention, which pollutes any real insights.

So the opportunity is to source the data, find real insights on what is working and what isn’t, then adjust as you go. For example, at BCG we know from our internal research that strongest correlator of productivity and successful client engagements, is whether the team feel they’re adding value to our clients. So we use this as a leading indicator of how projects are tracking and make proactive interventions to ensure things stay on track.

Then don’t just decide on your model and be done with it. Set up a system of continuous improvement, with a small team, for the rest of all time, that aims to help the organisation to adapt and adopt new practices to make things work better. This should be a representative team, across demographics and functions, staffed by respective leaders who can be champions for better ways of working.

Reimagine the Future Office

The office is far from dead. In fact, BCG research shows that during lockdowns more than three quarters of people were excited to come back to the office, albeit in hybrid models. Our research also showed the top three reasons for this desire to return to office working: 1) informal/social interactions; 2) formal meetings, workshops and team collaboration; and 3) access to better workspaces and technology, that are free from distraction.

The setup of the future office needs to reflect those needs and must focus on purposeful collaboration. Businesses are now thinking differently about their office space, designing for accidental collisions to aid social interaction, incorporating more team rooms for collaboration with flexible furniture and – countering trends over the last decade – providing more offices with doors to allow for focused work.

And that focus on what we would call purposeful collaboration – co-locating for a reason – is what is and should drive office usage going forward.

Since before the start of the pandemic, Google has been experimenting with new and more flexible workspaces and formats.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that it is possible for people to work productively remotely, and collaboration is also possible when workers are all remote. But collaboration becomes more challenging with hybrid models. Hybrid meetings, with some team members in the room and some virtual, are hard to make effective, and building personal relationships is faster face to face.

Recently, the team at Woolworths has been rethinking part of its office space to not only set up for a hybrid future but to rethink sustainability, accessibility and inclusion.

The challenges presented by new ways of working have resulted in innovative solutions from business to meet sometimes competing expectations of employers and employees. But these solutions are very much a work in progress. What’s clear is that those organisations that are tackling these issues head on with new operating models, innovative mindsets and a focus on their leaders are likely to have a significant advantage in the ongoing war for talent.

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