Hybrid work is now locked in as the standard for Australians, with a global study suggesting that Australian employers expect workers will work from home on average one day per week.
The same US-based study suggested that more than one in three Australian workers would quit or start looking for a new gig if they were ordered to return to the office full time.
Recent Australian research also found 44% of knowledge workers were involved in hybrid work, splitting their time between the office and working remotely.
Institute of Community Directors Australia (ICDA) legal partners Maddocks, who are workplace legal specialists, recently hosted a one-hour practical webinar where partners Catherine Dunlop and Lindy Richardson outlined the benefits and challenges facing leaders who want to maximise productivity with a mix of stay-at-home and in-office work, while also keeping staff welfare at the fore.
From that webinar, here are some of the issues that forward-thinking employers should consider.
The benefits of hybrid work
Ms Richardson said workplace flexibility created significant benefits for workers and organisations, such as reduced travel time and costs, better work-life balance, improved health and well-being, reduced stress, better conditions for those returning to work after parental leave, a smoother transition to retirement, greater worker engagement, and better talent retention.
Managing perceptions about remote and office-based work
Maddocks nominates four key areas for employers to address to ensure hybrid work improves productivity. They suggest keeping a close eye on:
- levels of supervision and trust
- employees’ commitment to the job
- communication and workplace scheduling.
Ms Richardson said requiring workers to return to the office can be a challenge, but good communication, specific timeframes, proper consultation, and ongoing evaluation and review of the hybrid arrangement will help employers to manage the transition.
“Having experienced the last couple of years, people have become very used to [working from home] arrangements they have put in place.”
She said employers should be conscious of those changes and give workers time to adjust to “the new normal”, including partial returns to the office.
If managers want staff to return to the office, they should be ready to “ask the tough questions early”, including:
- What days do you want to work from the office?
- How will client service levels be maintained?
- How will your carer responsibilities be managed?
- How will performance measures need to change?
Ms Richardson flagged that managing requests for flexibility could be tricky if they clashed with your not-for-profit’s service promise; for example, if several staff want to work from home on the same day.
She said employers should involve employees in decisions about hybrid arrangements, partly because consultation was mandated by law, but also because it was one of the best ways to ensure workers were engaged in and committed to the process.
Ms Dunlop stressed that hybrid arrangements should be subject to ongoing review so that workplaces weren’t locked into difficult situations. For example, she suggested NFPs should set all arrangements for “trial” periods of up to a year, subject to review, rather than simply allowing a “first in, first served” approach, which can create tensions within teams.
She also said that requests would be subject to new federal industrial relations rules requiring employers to formally consider flexibility requests.
When can you force workers to return to the office?
In basic terms, a workplace can usually issue a “lawful and reasonable direction” for a return to the office, but managers must comply with workplace health and safety obligations and consider legitimate concerns.
Employers should also be familiar with employment contracts and job descriptions, what they say about where work should be performed, and what policies say about workplace flexibility.
In some cases, an employee’s failure to follow a lawful direction may be grounds for dismissal or disciplinary action.
Ms Richardson said managers should carefully consider the personal circumstances of each employee as part of any reasonable action.
Things get more complicated if workers seek to work from other states and territories (or even countries), because of different workplace laws in those jurisdictions.
Getting the hybrid mix right for your organisation
Madddocks highlighted the value of developing a hybrid structure that reflects your workplace’s type, clients, stakeholders, culture, and management style.
They suggest that organisations must:
- allocate work fairly, accounting for the workloads of various team members
- help hybrid workers make the most of their time, such as by rostering meetings on office days
- ensure remote workers have sufficient opportunities for networking, mentoring, knowledge sharing, and training
- enable all workers to access information and workplace resources equally
- accept that different organisations have different face-to-face needs
- develop performance evaluation with clear KPIs, simple objectives and areas of improvement that cater for remote work
- avoid “blurring the boundaries” between home and work to avoid overwork, and remind staff of accepted/contracted work hours
- remind staff of the purpose of their work to help maintain connection and focus
- carefully address health and safety issues for home workers.
Good feedback and excellent communication between staff and managers – such as through regular “check-ins” – will maintain collaboration, reduce burnout, and improve engagement and motivation, Ms Richardson said.
“Employees should alternate between home and office seamlessly in a hybrid work model, without a decrease in productivity.”
Ms Dunlop said a lurking danger was that of “location bias”, in which those workers who are more visible by being in the office receive preferential treatment. She said “human nature” ties proximity with connection.
But location bias could trigger indirect discrimination against those more likely to spend more time remotely, such as women, parents with children, younger workers and introverts.
The suggestions above should help reduce this risk, she said.
Ms Dunlop said organisations must avoid the “out of sight, out of mind” problem with remote workers, and good management practices include “open diaries”, an understanding of workloads across the organisation, and good email protocols.
Webinar on replay: Hybrid work – the good, the bad, the confusing ($70 for ICDA members, $80 for others)
Harvard Business Review: Good email protocols