Related Expertise: People Strategy, Organization Strategy, Organizational Culture

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.

“The COVID pandemic has driven us to see work as a series of transactions. Can we get that paper written? Yes. Can we communicate that information? Yes. But what intangible benefit may have come from the three of us being in a room together? Does the relationship we build sustain over time? We don’t know this yet.”
—Sian Lewis, CBA

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.

“In the information & comms industry over the past two years, the proportion of people who are looking for new roles who say they want the ability to work from home – for at least some of the time - has gone from 13% to 46%. If you are an organisation that isn’t enabling this, then you are at a significant disadvantage.”
—Kathleen McCudden, SEEK

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.

“Humans are strengthened by others. At Optus, we believe this accelerates innovation, productivity, and the pace of the organisation in a more meaningful way. This doesn’t need to be five days a week, but more of a blended/hybrid model, based on the work people are doing.”
—Kate Aitken, Optus

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.

“When we think about what we need from leaders in these new environments, it’s the same things we’ve always needed, they’ve just become more important. Leaders need to be authentic and build real relationships with people at a one-on-one level AND at a scaled level across entire teams. They can’t leave people behind – they must be authentic, connected and engaged.”
—Alex Badenoch, Telstra

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.

“We’re a people led business and we see the value of bringing our teams together in person. But ways of working have shifted and it’s not a one size fits all approach to flexibility. Leaders will need to lead differently, making sure it ladders up to the needs of the individual team member, the wider business team and ultimately to the purpose of the organisation.”
—Caryn Katsikogianis, Woolworths Group

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

“Role modelling is essential when embedding a new way of working. We all need to consider the shadow we cast as leaders, as actions will always speak louder than words. With meaningful connection even more critical, we will need to be more intentional in our actions to engage our people and ensure they feel supported.”
—Kate Dee, Bupa

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.

“Strong, visible and authentic leadership is essential –focus on ensuring you have the right people in the right roles. Then make decisions as a leadership team and stick to them. Put yourself second and the group agenda first to move forward constructively and be truly successful.”
—Gitanjali Bhalla, Seven Group

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.

“We’ve designed our own mental health for leaders’ program. It helps leaders more easily identify those that may be struggling with mental health concerns and offers practical ways we can help them address these issues.”
—Vanessa Morley, Nine

“We ran voluntary leader drop-in sessions, where leaders could get together with their peers as a cohort and discuss the guidelines with each other and what others are doing. This has really helped them as leaders but also us as an organisation with a degree of consistency on how the guidelines are interpreted.”
—Jo Fox, AGL

“We have a formal program of developing what we call Hybrid Habits, some of which is really simple – do leaders know how to run hybrid meetings in inclusive ways with, for example, seven out of 10 people in a room? Does everyone dial in on their laptops so you can still have all the faces that same size, still use virtual hands up and chat functionality? As leaders, you need to create the rules of the road – if you think it will find its own settling place, it won’t. It requires effort and deliberate action.”
—Alex Badenoch, Telstra

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.

“We used to lead through eye contact … there is a whole suite of skills we need to teach such as psychological safety, creating an environment of trust, how to run an inclusive hybrid meeting.”
—Sian Lewis, CBA

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.

“Our research showed some significant differences in gender. Women reported they had the toughest time during the pandemic, with; the lion’s share of the mental load and domestic caring falling to them. Women were also less inclined to change jobs versus their male counterparts. Flexibility and the ability to separate work from personal commitments is even more important now, than before the pandemic.”
—Kathleen McCudden, SEEK

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.

“At BHP, we have taken a deliberate approach to flexibility and hybrid working. We don’t believe that flexibility and asking our people to be in the office are mutually exclusive; they are both necessary ingredients to a high-performance culture. We have encouraged our teams to come together for a few days per week, to connect, problem solve and innovate, and we have a custom built tool that allows teams to know who is in the office and where they will be sitting on any given week. This means teams can be intentional with the time spent in the office, by doing work that is more conducive to a face-to-face setting as well as letting others in the team know where and when they will be in the office.”
—Jad Vodopija, BHP

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.

“Fundamental to our approach was setting a clear vision and framework – to ensure leaders had the right tools to support their teams and could help their people understand the importance of prioritising the group and individual needs.”
—Christine Stasi, IAG

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.

“At Optus, we have been intentional with explaining that there’s value in having everyone together, especially for moments that matter. We have Optus Wednesdays where we are asking everyone to be on Campus. We then ask each function to nominate another day to come together and each team to decide on a third day they will get together. This way it’s clear why we are getting people into the office but still allowing teams to self-organise.”
—Kate Aitken, Optus

“As we are a relationship bank, we know we’re at our best when we’re together – in branches, business banking centres, offices and with our customers. We also know the importance of enabling a level of flexibility for our colleagues. Striking the right balance is critical and we have set clear expectations across our organisation in order to drive meaningful colleague connection and collaboration.”
—Susan Ferrier, NAB

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.

“We are encouraging all our employees to think about “Me”, “We” (the team) and “Us” (the business) as they make decisions on where and when to get their work done, balancing the needs of all three groups to deliver great outcomes for our customers.”
—Kath van der Merwe, ANZ Bank

“We care much more about people delivering on their outcomes – we are moving from tracking inputs to outputs.”
—Christine Parker, Westpac

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.

“We have largely moved to location agnostic working but we are also talking about signature events – those that are really important to the fabric of our culture. For example, twice a year we get our ~250 most senior leaders together and we are transitioning this to an “in-person” event, and we won’t be live streaming this anymore. Recognition events, for our top performers are also a signature event.”
—Alex Badenoch, Telstra

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.

“A flexibility policy should naturally be flexible and not highly prescriptive. There is value in empowering our teams and individuals to test and learn and find the right balance between remote and on-site working, based on what the business needs, team differences, individual preferences and the ever-changing external settings.”
—Michelle Williams, The Lottery Corporation (formerly Tabcorp)

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.

“At Tabcorp, we were able to find alternative solutions for roles that traditionally needed to be done on site, such as those working under regulations stipulating they need to be conducted under cameras. We created solutions that probably wouldn’t have been considered pre-COVID.”
—Michelle Williams, The Lottery Corporation (formerly Tabcorp)

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.

“Deskless workers in some ways are already experienced in team environments – they already had to work together to solve a resident’s needs to be met. It’s always been a 24-7 environment where someone may have their daughter’s wedding on Saturday and needed someone to cover for them. They’ve always considered the needs of the whole team and self-organised to make it work.”
—Kate Dee, Bupa

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.

“We recognised the opportunity the last few years presented to reset what we stood for, and the expectations we had for the behaviours of our people. So we co-created our purpose and values - our expectations of behaviours with our people, hearing from them directly on the things they thought were important. 1,200 people contributed from across the business – defining the “Nine Ways” of doing things. One of the key themes to come from this was the importance of connection - to our audience, to our communities and to each other. We’ve seen the importance of connection play out really strongly with people who joined during the pandemic in particular, where we needed to work harder to build connection to colleagues, and to our culture. We’re focused on creating unique opportunity for connection, where we bring people together to hear from leaders from different parts of the business and celebrate experiences you can only get from being part of Nine, connecting with colleagues as well as the business, our purpose and our culture.”
—Vanessa Morley, Nine

“We’ve had an experimental initiative where around 300 members of our team were allowed to work from anywhere for two months. Our learnings have been that we need to consider time-zones, and people are adapting to make this work. The teams have been really appreciative of the flexibility this has provided them and definitely helped with retention, and we will continue to iterate this model as we learn more.”
—Caryn Katsikogianis, Woolworths Group

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.

“At nbn, we are using short term measures to give a clear picture on how people are using the office space, and for what purposes, and how we can factor this into future decision making.  Longer term lead and lag indicators have also been developed and aligned with our EVP measures.”
—Sally Kincaid, nbn

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.

“I’m fascinated by how impatient we all are to finalise the model, when we don’t really know what the future holds. How do we manage the boldness of new models, whilst holding the course in not transitioning back to how things used to be?”
—Sally Kincaid, nbn

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.

“At Google we have been testing new multi-purpose offices and private workspaces and working with teams to develop advanced video technology that creates greater equity between employees in the office and those joining virtually. We have been experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t work. Some concepts such as inflatable walls and campfire formats have not worked out as intended, but other concepts such as consistent tech setup between home and office have been much better.

We know that people coming into an office are, above all, most keen to socialise, so we are making our social spaces more prominent and work harder. Secondly, they want to collaborate, but we recognise that most meetings are now in hybrid format, so we are looking at room configurations with, for example, directional mics to improve sound quality. Finally, many come to our offices for distraction-free working so we are also investing in breakaway spaces with walls and sound masking technology to let team members focus.”
—Doug Begg, Google

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.

“Being Australia’s largest retailer means the majority of our teams are in stores or customer facing. But we do recognise the importance of providing flexibility to the thousands of support team members who aren’t working on the frontline.

At Woolworths Group, flexibility for our support team members is not new to us and we know that it can mean different things to different people. For us, flexibility is about enabling teams to connect and collaborate no matter where and how they work. Our support team have told us they want spaces that enable them to be more purposeful and inclusive, where they can connect, collaborate and do their best work, and which are equipped with the latest technologies to enable hybrid working.

Earlier this year, we launched our new collaboration spaces, designed with our teams for our teams. These new spaces are purpose-built with a great focus on innovation, sustainability, safety, wellbeing and inclusion. The ability of these spaces to be customised to the different needs and incorporate the latest technologies has been a highlight for our teams.

As we continue to evolve our collaboration spaces across all our support offices and test new tools and technologies, our focus will be on unlocking our full potential, driving the best team experience, and personalising these spaces based on the different work our team do.”
—Anupam Singh, Tribe Lead WeSpace, Woolworths Group

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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Finding Balance in the Future of Work