Employers across Australia, New Zealand and the world are facing uncertain times. COVID-19 has forced change in the ways our businesses operate and in which our staff work. Overnight, most offices and facilities across both countries were forced to close and operate as best they could remotely. And today, our thoughts are with Victorian businesses which have entered their second lockdown.

This change has forced many challenges on business-owners. Everything from performance management to information collaboration to enforcing a work-life balance has become far more difficult without the immediacy of the office and its clear delineation from home. Businesses have worked through these operational and cultural challenges to varying degrees and in the process have unlocked new efficiencies and ways of working, but the winding down of restrictions raises fresh questions.

A new desire for remote work

One crucial question being, what will the ‘new normal’ in the workplace look like post-COVID-19? Many office-based employees are coming forward saying they want a change from the pre-COVID-19 normal, seeking a different working arrangement to that accepted last year. After months of working quite happily and effectively at home, these employees are approaching decision-makers with set views on how and where they want to work.  Many of those coming forward are requesting a blended environment where working from a single office is not the only directive, but one of several options alongside remote work.

While remote work is not a new idea, it was also far from universal prior to COVID-19. Managing these requests – especially in the wake of an event that largely validated theories about the feasibility of wide-scale remote work – will be difficult for employers who have not previously had to offer this diversity.

Change – even when it is for the better – is always going to require more effort than staying the course. However, in the environment we find ourselves in, returning to old processes may simply not be possible. COVID-19 has forced businesses to jump into new ways of working before they could be lab-tested – and now there is only future thinking to be held accountable and to continue to drive positive outcomes. In this new environment, we cannot cling to old ways of working, we need to embrace change and see this as an opportunity. Organisations that fail to adapt could see themselves go out of business, making this a true sink or swim moment.

Note that any shift to a mixed-working environment also poses health and safety challenges. Not only are employers required to ensure that their office conforms to existing WHS guidelines, but also that employees are safe wherever they work. Workplace health and safety laws in both Australia and New Zealand require employers to ensure the safety and physical and mental wellbeing of employees working from home, so take the time to develop the right policies. At the same time, employees also hold some accountability regarding WHS, and education of employees regarding their responsibilities in this regard is very important.

Managing the return to the office

While it took a pandemic to act as the catalyst, this revolution in the working environment has been decades in the making. COVID-19 has simply accelerated the process, pushing office culture over the edge. Changing ideas of what work looks like coupled with advancing technology that enables richer communication and deeper collaboration at any distance have opened the door to serious conversations about the future of the workplace. More forward-thinking decision-makers have been attempting to design an augmented efficient and effective working environment for their employees, establishing an approach that would trend into the next five years. Largely adopting greater technological capabilities to encompass a connected and empowered working culture by design, from home.

Fortunately, this means that even if this is a new question to you, it’s not a new question to other employers. Businesses that are looking to return to the office in some capacity in the near future have years of data and research to draw on, which offers some insight to help you shape your own response.

One of the key lessons learnt by businesses who have embraced remote work is to listen to your staff. Once you open the door to alternative ways of working, staff are going to want to provide input on what any new policy looks like, making communication, consultation and open-mindedness essential virtues.

Understanding who your employees are and what they want

While remote work is already a concept that attracts strong opinions, the pandemic has heightened interest in the issue . Legitimate concerns about contracting the virus on public transport or in the office mean that it is more vital than ever that you are understanding of staff’s needs. Employees want to know that their employer has their safety and best interests at heart – do not try to force employees into a way of working without extensive consultation. With many analysts saying we’re entering a new normal – not returning to pre-COVID-19 processes – involving your staff in any dialogue about ways of working that affects them is vital. Consultation with employees can happen using flexible work policies and processes – something Bentleys can assist with.

Key to making any new way of working stick is a deep understanding of your employees’ needs and their different styles of working. While many decision-makers may reach for broad assumptions based on the generation an individual falls into, we would caution against that. Our research has found that COVID-19 has taken the focus off generational difference, instead aligning decision-makers to more strongly consider individual needs. An employee’s private circumstances – such as whether they are at high-risk of illness were they to contract the virus or whether they live with an elderly relative – were far stronger determinants of their attitude towards various ways of working than what marketing segment they fell into.

The all-encompassing nature of the crisis means that the lack of trust we had previously seen between generations – the idea that because you were born in this era you could only work in this way – has slipped away as staff of all ages have largely demonstrated an ability to adapt to these new circumstances. What’s left is a newly found clarity amongst employees about what works best for them and a drive to make the business work in the best way possible – the perfect foundation for building your new normal.

Changing ways of work

A key question amongst many employers is whether changes to where we work necessitate changes to the work we do. In our experience, the answer is more nuanced. What is more likely to result is a reshuffling of priorities rather than a significant shift in how we work, where organisational success hinges to an even greater degree on our ability to communicate and lead.

What constitutes leadership and communication will also shift. When staff are no longer in daily physical contact, those ad hoc conversations that form small but crucial parts of your performance management and engagement strategy are no longer possible. Instead, rigorous processes and workflows need to be put in place to ensure that staff stay aligned with the values and objectives of the company. How we manage our staff’s productivity and ensure they understand and work towards the goals of the company will become increasingly important. Structured, regular support from team leaders, management and peers becomes necessary to keep your employees pulling in the same direction.

Hand in hand with this comes a need to adjust your hiring practices. In this more fluid workplace, gone are the days where each staff member is hired for a fixed skill set in a set role. People with a diversity of experience, with the ability to expand outside of the role they applied for and use their skills to move within the organisation to address more mission-critical, project-based work are going to become more attractive than ever. Greater distance requires greater autonomy on the part of staff and greater trust on the part of employers, so building resilience, trust and open-mindedness among hiring managers and all staffacross your organisation  will go a long way in enabling this new working environment.

Building for the future of the workplace

Your business needs to be looking beyond the short-term. COVID-19 has the potential to upend the way many established industries function – and if you’re not part of the wave of disruption, you’re likely to be the one being disrupted.

Be future-orientated – new ways of working and new skill sets will naturally give rise to new job roles, which will in turn necessitate changes to the structure of your business. Don’t wait until the wave is over your head – think now about what kind of roles your company will hire for in five years and what kind of roles you won’t have on your org chart.

While automation definitely has a role to play in the future of the workplace, it’s vital not to underestimate the human element. The workplace of the future will be significantly more automated than the one we’re in now, but there will always be a human aspect to roles – even if it’s in configuring automated systems. What we’ve seen is that creative, intuitive and imaginative people are the ones who have been able to best identify blind-spots and opportunities within their organisation, all of which are skills that rely on a very human emotional intelligence that no algorithm can replicate.

Success now can predict success in the coming era

Finally, those businesses that are best equipped to reap the benefits of the future workplace are those that have best weathered the pandemic. In many ways, COVID-19 was an excellent stress test of many organisations’ ability to find new, more flexible ways to achieve existing objectives and please existing clients. Largely, these were businesses that were ahead of the curve in their embracing of cloud-based systems and demonstrated the ability to make effective decisions on the run.

These qualities aren’t inherent to any one organisation or any one employer – they can be learned and mastered. Speak to your local Bentleys advisor to find out how we could help orient your business towards the future.

We, at Bentleys, are doing everything we can to help businesses come out of this challenging time in good shape.

We will continue to update our COVID-19 resource hub with important developments, so please return soon.

Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and should not be relied on as advice. It does not take into account the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular person. You need to consider your financial situation and needs and seek professional advice before making any decisions based on this information.

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