Due to the pandemic, the hybrid workforce and working from anywhere (WFA) – the home, the office, the library or even a beachside shack – are now accepted norms in workplaces across Australia and the globe, with four out of five Australian businesses saying remote working is here to stay. But what is the key to making this new flexible workplace successful? According to the experts, the number one step is setting up a company-wide WFA policy and making sure leaders, managers and employees are all on board.
Both management and employee buy-in are key to creating a winning WFA policy, with clear parameters and trust the core ingredients, according to Gary Champion, principal of HR consultancy HBA Consulting. “You really need strong levels of trust and good planning arrangements to make sure that the workload and the work outputs are clear, agreed and able to be managed without that face-to-face presence between the manager and the team member,” he says. It’s also important to start from scratch with any WFA policies rather than simply adapting any previous policies for working outside of the office that were established during the pandemic, says Champion. First, gather data on the impact any previous flexible workplace arrangements had on productivity, retention and workplace health and safety. Kristy Nicholson, National Manager – Health and Safety Consulting at Mercer Marsh Benefits, also points out that it’s a legislative requirement to consult with employees when setting any policies that impact upon worker health and safety, including a WFA policy, so not only is employee consultation incredibly useful, it’s also mandatory. A working-from-anywhere policy needs to define acceptable locations of work, the frequency of in-office presence, working hours and expected outputs, says Champion. Parameters for team communication, knowledge sharing, mentoring and collaboration will also need to be addressed. A WFA policy may also need to stipulate what equipment the business will supply and whether it will provide financial subsidies for alternate locations, such as co-working spaces.
A home office can be assessed for health and safety hazards, however, this is much harder to do in a WFA space. “There are definitely more risks,” Nicholson says. “Working in public, you’ve got exposure to a variety of risks that are completely uncontrolled.” She says a WFA policy should stipulate minimum requirements that need to be in place for a location to be deemed suitable for work. An effective WFA policy will also need to address data and cyber security and, depending on the type of business, regulatory requirements. “Are the organisation’s computer systems and security systems up for the challenge?” asks Nicholson, while Champion adds that due to the risks involved, some roles, such as employees who access customer data, might not be appropriate for WFA. And while there may be concerns about maintaining a sense of company culture and collaboration when team members are not based in the office, for companies looking to advance cultural change, WFA can actually be the catalyst towards creating a trust-based work culture based on workplace flexibility.
Implementing a WFA policy can play a big role in attracting and retaining talent, especially with talk of the ‘great resignation’ happening. “When there isn't a good policy in place, people vote with their feet,” says Champion. “In terms of attracting people, they’ll be asking questions like, ‘What is meant by workplace flexibility and what is your position on WFA?’” Providing funding to employees to set up their WFA workspaces, through schemes such as Flexiworks, provides further incentive to attract and retain quality talent. The investment in a WFA setup for employees could potentially be offset by a reduced need for office floor space. “This is really the next level of workplace consolidation,” says Nicholson. “Whether that’s reducing floor space, repurposing spaces to be collaborative or using those spaces to attract workers back into the office by making the time they spend in the office much more enjoyable.” Of course, there are also the work-life balance benefits for employees that can lead to greater productivity. “Workers can log in and out during productive phases of their day, rather than being locked into one shift where they might not be as effective,” says Nicholson. “WFA gives people that flexibility, providing it’s within the confines of what the workplace requires.”
No matter how comprehensive a WFA policy is in a company, it won’t matter unless it is communicated to all employees and is seen to be equitable. Champion says that while WFA is likely to be embraced by employees, there is a risk it could foster resentment if some roles can’t be WFA. In order to reduce this risk, WFA policies need to focus on job types, not people, and use independent consideration tools for assessment. “If you just leave it up to managers you’ll get inconsistent outcomes and drive disgruntled employees,” says Champion. “The employee has got to know they’ve had a fair hearing, and that the policy has been applied consistently.”
The work-from-anywhere model has largely been pioneered by start-ups and tech firms such as Twitter, Spotify and Facebook, who are rethinking work as an activity, rather than a place, and have embraced the idea of a distributed workforce. (Activity Based Working is a similar concept to WFA.) Increasing numbers of big businesses are following suit; recently the Australian operations of both Deloitte and KPMG announced WFA policies for their workforces. Deloitte Australia will allow staff to work from select countries, permitting them to extend overseas holidays, while KPMG will allow its staff to do the same for an average of six weeks. Likewise, Big Red Group’s WFA policy permits employees to work from anywhere for 30 days (link to OWF002). And advertising agencies OMD Australia and VCCP Sydney have announced short-term WFA initiatives designed to help employees reconnect with family and friends globally following extensive lockdown periods. As companies increasingly dip their toes into the WFA realm, it’s likely more will adopt added permanent policies going forward for year-round WFA.