Post extensive lockdown periods, forward-thinking businesses are taking remote and flexible working further by recognising employees don’t even have to be at home to work effectively. With a laptop and reliable internet connection, they can be anywhere: at home, at the office, on the road… perhaps even beachside. It’s a new way of working, becoming known as ‘work from anywhere’ – or WFA, for short.
One of the first Australian businesses to incorporate WFA into their business model is experience marketplace Big Red Group. Headquartered in Sydney with an employee base of more than 150 people, Big Red Group includes brands like Adrenaline, Experience Oz, Experience Oz Local Agent, Lime&Tonic and RedBalloon.
In August 2021, the company introduced a 30-day WFA benefit that allows staff to indulge their wanderlust. WFA days need to be taken in one period, with travel time and living expenses being the employee’s responsibility. Different time zones? Not a problem. They just need to be workable for both the employee and their employer back home.
The WFA policy draws on Big Red Group’s 2021 ‘Creating the New Experience of Work’ white paper, which identified a ‘fundamental shift in how we work, live and think’. In the paper’s foreword, Naomi Simson, Big Red Group’s co-founder, notes “Work used to be a place we went; now it is what we do.”
The initiative has been driven by Madeleine Robins, people and culture director, as part of a refresh of the company’s benefits program and part of their broader flexible working policies. She says there has been a seismic shift in the employee landscape. “Since COVID, [there has been] a shift of power for employees to say: ‘This is what I want.’ It’s not just about money. It’s about what is right for people now.” Here, Madeline shares how Big Red Group did it.
It’s quite relevant to the profile of our business. A lot of our team are expats and travellers; we operate on the edge of travel and tourism, and our people love adventure. COVID had taken that away from them. We knew, looking forward, our team would have a hunger to travel. Because we run a mid-sized business, we were at risk that a lot of our team would choose to take extended leave at the same time.
We also knew there was talk about ‘the great resignation’. I’m not a believer in forcing people to stay but I am a believer in having a great business that they choose to come to every day. We wanted our critical talent to stay with us. Having had the COVID experience, we knew you didn’t need to come to the office all the time.
So we said, if one of your key values is to travel and you can do your job at the same time, we want to enable you to do that. Our employees wouldn’t have to draw down all their annual leave in one trip.
Is it good for the employee? Yes. Is it good for our teams? Yes. It maintains people in their roles. And is it good for the business and our brand? Yes. So it was an easy win for us.
We helped stakeholders understand why it was a benefit. We reset our employee value proposition last year, and looked at how our benefits acted and aligned in service with those values to ensure we had a consistent employee experience.
When we took this benefit to the shareholders for sign-off, they weren’t resistant – just curious. We played out the worst-case scenario: 60 members of our team all working from anywhere at any given time. However, we mapped it back and said we did that during COVID anyway and our business continued well.
So we structured in some process around what you need to consider when setting your team up for success using the 30 days. We added in some careful wording: it’s up to you for the travel, to cover your taxes, when you are in places that need a visa and so on. That’s on you. Our gift is to allow you to work remotely.
Shareholders were open to new ideas in light of the talent war we face [in 2022].
We wrote a policy around it. And there were a few thought processes we asked our managers to go through. For instance, have you got multiple people out of the business at the same time? Does it impact the team? We ask them to think about the time zone, and for the manager and employee to work out what the crossover would be.
We also have some performance caveats, too; if you are an under-performing employee, it’s not a benefit you can access.
It’s mainly based on trust. We have a lot of people who want to use the benefit next year and our leaders have no concern with it. The travel time is personal leave. You turn up to work as normal after that, whether you’re in Bali or Ibiza.
We are one of the first. HubSpot offers 60 days; they went first on a global level. I don’t know of anyone else in Australia. Atlassian allows you to work anywhere in the world where they have a presence.
When we launched, I had mixed feedback. A lot of HR practitioners asked: how did you do it? How do you run it as a process? How did you get your CEO and shareholders to agree to it? But we had a lot of positive feedback from the talent communities we work with who said it aligned with who we are. It’s forward-thinking. A few CEOs of startups have said we’re doing interesting stuff and if they can talk about why we’ve invested in things like this.
We run ecommerce sites so historically we’ve been flexible: people would work from home but we had more process around it. It was ‘office-first’ as a culture; if you wanted to work from home you could, but needed to talk to your leader. During COVID, it was an easy transition to move to home.
Several people are booked in for next year, and most of it is international starting in around May next year. People schedule the 30 days WFA – you have to take it in one package, even if you just take two weeks. You can’t break it down because it becomes too hard for HR.
We have a workforce across Australia and New Zealand. Any one of our team can work from the Sydney head office full-time or can be fully remote and never come to the office. Or they can choose to come in a few days a week. It’s not a big issue for us when people work remotely. There are certain key business planning times we’d want to avoid WFA but our team are respectful of that; they want to be in the room for workshops and planning.
If you love to travel, are an expat or your partner works abroad a lot, you don't have to draw down on your annual leave or take extended or unpaid leave. What we’re seeing is people going to see family they haven’t seen; there’s lots of trips to the UK and Europe. They get to do some travel, see their family, and still work and have an income, while also preserving some of their annual leave. People are grateful for that.
For the business, it gives us continuity. We don’t have multiple people out on two- to four-week holidays. It allows us to retain our talent and allows us to do something unique, which is great for our brand. And it allows us to stand in a tricky marketplace at this time but doesn’t impact our ability to run the business 24/7.
After the first round of COVID, we opened a new office in Martin Place. That was a surprise for our team to have a beautiful space in the middle of the CBD that was ours. It’s our community, not just our office. We have a weekly lunch where we have a chef and you can come in and sit round the table and share a meal with people. It reinforces that you can work anywhere but that relationships and connections are important to us.
We also rolled out a hybrid-working model in NSW: work from home full time, come to the office five days a week with a permanent desk, or use the bookable desk system. Employees make the decision where they do their best work.
The office is only 40% desked – the rest is open working spaces, a community kitchen, a big table, bar, working booths and a quiet area. There’s music playing, an indoor garden and lots of plants in the office, too. And it’s easy to access tech in the meeting rooms. If you have a meeting with 10 people, half might be at home and that transition needs to be simple.
We don’t want it to feel like your house, but it does need to be a welcoming space and not a cold office where you just come to work.
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Experience is at the heart of what we do. We made the decision to set up a program where everyone, every month, gets to go out with a small group of their peers. We buy those experiences at full price. Throughout COVID and still now, we invest back into the Australian community.
Connection is part of our business plan – that’s one thing we took away from COVID. We knew it [before], but became more acutely aware of it during COVID. So we make sure we make time for that. People need to see that connection is part of a successful business.
Trust. This is a big extension of trust from an employer to say, ‘I trust you, I’m going to give generously to you.’ Some people may not return that trust, but that’s yet to be proven.
When people start using it, we will look at it, do checkpoints. By the end of June, a few people will have taken the benefit and we’ll want to know what the experience was like for them. We will look at it from the business side but also from the employee side – did it work for them?
I think [companies] will have to offer as much flexibility as they can. It’s top of the list in terms of employee needs; they want flexibility to live their life. They still want to work and be part of the work community. Employers that don’t offer flexibility will have to step into that place.