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The future workplace: no cookie-cutter solutions

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Could the COVID pandemic be an unlikely catalyst to end what historian Geoffrey Blainey once dubbed Australia’s “tyranny of distance"?

The answer is likely to be a resounding yes for many Australian workers, according to an expert panel discussing the future of workplace experiences in the insurance sector.

Universal acceptance of a hybrid home-office work model, facilitated by technology, has for the first time dramatically levelled the playing field for regional residents outside city hubs, and for workers with a disability who find commuting an obstacle.

The “Future Workplace” webinar, facilitated by Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) COO Kylie Macfarlane, was told that Work from Home orders and the Zoom boom have upended the assumption you must spend Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, at your office desk to be a truly productive worker.

“COVID has actually forced the human condition into the 21st century to make the best of the technology they already had at their hands,” Ms Macfarlane said. “We are shifting through a cycle – and people have to come on that journey.

“You can be anywhere and do your job. That’s actually not the fundamental box that needs to be ticked.”

New habits and team experiences that evolved during the disruption of the past 18 months are the drivers creating the innovation needed in the future insurance workplace.

“I’ve probably seen my colleagues in more lycra than I ever really wanted to see them in,” Ms Macfarlane told the webinar. “It definitely has changed that relationship and really humanised how we connect with each other.

“The conversation has now shifted to ‘Why do you come to work?’ and ‘When you come to work, what are you actually going to do?’ Because you now do the mainstay of your job at home.”

The panel shared lockdown experiences of walk-and-talk meetings in parks, online morning stretch classes, permanent desk set-ups in gardens listening to birds, and attending Zoom meetings with wet hair after a micro-break in the pool.

Among topics discussed was “the white elephant which is the multi-storey office block” and what the future holds for workplace design.

Blainey, writing in 1967, argued that Australia’s distance and isolation have been central to shaping its history and national identity.

In many ways the office-centric nature of insurance has been similarly central to its workplace culture, and the day-to-day experience of employees.

Businesses now need to assume there will always be at least one remote participant, and overcome dated biases such as a tendency to mentor and promote workers who are physically present over those working remotely or spending fewer days in the office.

“Think about traditional workforces where the cardigan was left on the chair to make it look like you were working 20 hours a day,” Ms Macfarlane said. “There is potentially a human bias to that physical connectivity.”

IAG EM Property Bernadette Holloway says individual workplaces will need to carefully adapt to their own specific needs. She says people should not expect to just deploy an updated activity-based working (ABW) template across all workforces.

“There is no cookie-cutter solution to this – it is not just ABW 2.0,” Ms Holloway said.

IAG is now planning for occupancy on a 10/30/60 basis: 10% of employees always working in the office due to their role or not having an appropriate or safe alternative; 30% permanently working from home – a ratio IAG was already working toward prior to COVID – and 60% adopting a hybrid office-home working lifestyle.

“That is our occupancy planning and from a corporate office block perspective, this represents a 40% drop in IAG‘s portfolio,” Ms Holloway said. “That’s big numbers.”

The sudden unplanned switch to always working from home has led to “meetings over meetings” for many staff members, and IAG is now introducing aligned break times to ensure people recharge and “take the call in the sun”.

“It is allowed,” she said. “We don’t have to be sat at the desk for 12 hours a day. There is (Microsoft) Teams popping up, there are a million different channels, and there is fatigue around it. The digital world is hard, it is challenging.”

An eventual return to the office will help, as in-person meetings and “water cooler” conversations will discourage the trend to “block people’s diaries from 7 to 7 with back-to-back meetings”.

A new IAG Perth office opened in June is designed around collaboration and curation of workspaces, making sure equipment set-up and finding co-workers is quick, easy and enjoyable

“That’s dramatically different from our activity-based working in head office as an example, and predominantly collaboration based,” Ms Holloway said. “Choice and curation is required within office spaces. It is really important – people want that flexibility.”

CBHS Health Fund COO Damon Quinn says his organisation is “really grappling” with issues such as occupational health and safety at home that weren’t under consideration at all a year ago.

COVID restrictions have made it abundantly clear transactional tasks and “counting widgets” can be done at home, and this means the office environment is now “about culture and ideation sessions”.

“It has a completely different focus to what it used to,” Mr Quinn said.

Without the office, staff miss human interaction the most – not the “lifts jamming and the air-conditioning complaints and the fire drills. They are just missing their colleagues, that spark of interaction.”

He advised insurers to seize the opportunity to “really purposefully design” their future workplace and not just “take the same space and say ‘Now we are hybrid’.”

“You’ve really got to be purposeful,” he says. “The workforce expectation is galloping and we need to be very careful that 12 months from now our employee offer matches what is expected and becomes the default normal. You better make sure your employee value proposition is right up there.”

Mr Quinn says the single biggest hurdle is changing the culture around career progression and the concept that “if you’re in the office, in some way you are more visible to senior people”.

“Some people still inherently doubt [positive] productivity reports no matter what evidence you give them. Bringing those people along on the journey is going to be one of the big challenges.”

AIA local CEO Damien Mu agrees the future office is not about enforcing output.

“It is more about how we maintain a wonderful culture and develop careers and get people to collaborate and connect and do all those things that are not as easy on the screen,” he told the webinar.

COVID has demonstrated that firms don’t need to have mass “town hall” meetings once a year to connect with everyone, and Mr Mu says Monday-to-Friday in the office is gone for good.

“We are never going to come back full time as far as I can see.”

AIA has enforced meeting limits of under an hour, allocated meeting-free time, and conducts two-word check-ins and the “three hums”: humanity, humility and humour.

The greatest innovation, Mr Mu says, is “people rallying around an old, really important thing called kindness”.

“It’s recognising that we’re all in a difficult and challenging situation. I really want that to stay. If we can bring that back into the office or to hybrid ways of working in the future, we will have evolved and moved forward.”