WFH or WFO? How Kiwi businesses are handling the shift change

Nine months ago AMP boss Blair Vernon vowed to scrap its central city offices and move to a permanent working-from-home model, with a site in the outer suburbs reserved mainly for meetings.

That hasn’t quite gone to plan, but the company has subleased two of its three Auckland CBD office floors and most staff now come in just one or two days a week – including Vernon himself.

He says some workers still come to the office five days a week – mainly younger people in flatting situations or those with young children at home – but most are happy to work from home.

“Some days we only have between 5 and 10 per cent of our workforce in the office, so it’s extraordinarily low.

“The release of two-thirds of our space, which is actually more than we anticipated … that we would release, is quite doable now because people just aren’t going to return on anything like what we anticipated.”

While in many countries workers have been forced to keep on working from home, Kiwis have had more choice.

Rather than rushing back, many office workers initially took time to be convinced to return to the traditional workplace. Now, instead of working five days a week in the same building, many have moved to a hybrid model with some days in the office and others at home.

John Kensington, head of financial services at KPMG, noted in a recent report on the banking sector that New Zealanders have been fortunate in being able to choose whether to return to the office.

“In many parts of the world people have been working remotely since March 2020 with no clear return to the office in sight,” he noted.

“We have the luxury of being able to decide what works best for our businesses, our customers and ourselves and apply it accordingly.”

Before Covid-19 struck, working from home was largely seen as a benefit used by working mothers, to help balance their caring responsibilities and encourage them back into the workforce.

But Kensington said that as businesses have got back to normal, all the major banks reported an increase in the number of people wanting to work remotely for at least part of the week.

“Following the events of 2020, it seems that the hybrid working week or 3-2-2 structure of three days in the office, two days at home and two days off is gaining popularity.

“While initially seen as primarily a diversity and inclusion offering, flexible working has become mainstream over the past 12 months. Organisations that were reluctant to introduce it have now seen that it is possible for large parts of their workforce to work more flexibly, including remotely, and that it is a critical part of the employee value proposition.”

For workers the benefits are obvious: saving time and cost on commuting, work clothes, coffees and lunches. One banking team estimated that working from home could save $9000 a year per person.

Some businesses, such as AMP and Vodafone, have also used the change as a way to cut down on expensive office space. Meanwhile, the banks have cut branch numbers as more customers have shifted online to do their banking.

ASB closed 23 branches last month on top of the nine it didn’t reopen after the first Covid-19 lockdown in March last year. The BNZ closed eight branches last year and has said it will close a further 30 this year.

Last week Kiwibank proposed closing seven branches. In the past, branch closures have signalled redundancies, but the shift to working from home has opened the door for bank staff to keep their jobs, serving call centres or customers from anywhere in the country.

But the shift to more WFH does not come without challenges.

Initial concerns focused on potentially lower productivity, but the first lockdown showed that in many cases that fear did not eventuate.

Now there are worries about how to maintain company culture and how managers look after teams who are no longer sitting close together. Video technology has stepped up to fill some of the gap, but has also sparked new terms such as “Zoom fatigue”, as workers exhaust themselves with multiple video conversations.

Kiwibank chief executive Steve Jurkovich says there are a different set of challenges with more people working from home.

“If you are in the office we can – for health and safety – we can make sure we can keep an eye on things, we can look for potential hazards.

“People operating from home, you are relying on them to take photographs and show you the environment they are operating in.”

Jurkovich says another issue is people overworking and finding it hard to shut off and separate work from home.

“It’s sometimes harder to remember to switch off rather than leaving the office and thinking ‘okay, now is home time’, there are elements of that.”

Jurkovich says many workers also enjoy the social side of being in the office.

“For all the flexibility, I think we are still pretty social creatures, we like the idea of talking to people and seeing people and catching up. Every business I speak to is learning and growing about how you make that work properly and well.”

And, he says, the new way of working means managers have to lead in a different way.

“Lots of us have grown up into these roles and being able to rely on management by walking around and talking to people and getting a feel for the vibe, that is way harder online.”

Kiwibank has developed a flexible working guideline and a work from home training scheme which all staff who take that option have to complete.

Jurkovich says top tips for its leaders include communicating regularly and clearly, including meetings at the start and end of the week to set and close off priorities and establish clear expectations and responsibilities.

Managers are also urged to address any performance issues quickly, model what they expect to see and practice active listening.

“Leaders are expected to work with their teams to develop clear expectations – defining the purpose of roles and setting areas of focus and priorities so that everyone understands what success looks like.

“However, we understand that working remotely adds a new element to many roles. Things like time management, collaboration and meeting etiquette all look a little different in a working from home environment, and whilst many people thrive and adjust to working remotely, others may not, and if this is the case Kiwibank leaders can request individuals return to the office.”

Some companies are managing the hybrid home/office model by requiring teams to come in on the same day.

AMP’s Vernon says that rather than a top-down prescriptive approach, it is leaving it up to individual teams to work out what works best for them.

“I’ve found people are more than able to figure that out for themselves; it doesn’t need managerial calories burned on orchestrating that.”

But there is a need for cross-team events to maintain company culture.

“What we are finding is that the boundaries – we now need to create activities that allow cross-team collaboration. We are building those around other reasons we will be in the office for community activities we might be involved in, [such as] recognition of Pride month, to create that cross-team dynamic – more from a social interaction and knowing people point of view.”

Vernon says he does not see productivity as an issue at all.

“From my perspective that is about team leaders being clear about what are the work activities and goals and targets we have got and then you organise around that. If you don’t have a clear sense of what you are trying to do for your clients and your other stakeholders, then your physical setup at work isn’t going to solve that.”

He also dismisses worries about how new and young employees will learn on the job.

“It is not the same as a workplace where you have to copy someone’s work – my son is an apprentice in a joinery factory, he is there to see how they operate the machinery.

“Ours is a completely different scenario. We don’t have that kind of requirement so actually the coaching of team members, if it’s about understanding our disclosure documents or the way we go about risk management, that is a conversation as opposed to a physical presence.”

And he says those conversations can happen using video technology platforms like Zoom.

Vernon says the areas he has had to watch out for are managing practical health and safety issues.

“You have got to invest enough in kit so people can operate, but equally, you have got to balance that so if people have particular requirements that are better served by being in the office – if they need height adjustable desks and they don’t have those at home – you have got to be able to make sure you provide that.”

And he too worries about blurring the line between work and home life.

“One of things I am very mindful of as we look into 2021, as this becomes our standard way of work, rather than me spending time being anxious about productivity loss, what I am mindful of is the encroachment and demarcation between work and the rest of your life.

“I think that is as equal a challenge as managing productivity – managing productivity, performance and the occasional underperformance has always been a requirement whether you are physically located or not. I think things we have now got to watch for are do people have the capacity to balance and turn off?”

Vernon says one way he handles it is through a reminder on his email messages.

“At the bottom of my email it highlights the fact we work flexibly and if I am sending my email to you at this time, it doesn’t mean I expect you to respond.”

He also tries keep in mind how much email traffic and correspondence the business does outside typical working hours.

As with Covid itself, he says managers have had to learn a new language.

“Just like we have learned a new language through Covid – we didn’t used to talk about lockdown, alert levels 1, 2 and 3 – for leaders, a new part of their lexicon is having those kinds of conversations as part of their ongoing normal coaching. It is understanding how is that going? Where are you at? I think we are all learning new skills, new language and it extends not just from this but from having a new workplace.”

One worry he has about the hybrid situation is if workers all choose to work from home on Mondays and Fridays.

“You don’t get much relief from your premise requirements because if they are all in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, that is not flexible – that is just a different work week. And also that just squeezes things up.

“When I look at the literature internationally, I think this is a fundamental shift that was probably occurring before Covid but it is definitely baked in now and I think mastering the skills of it are really good skills to be able to master. The thing they require are leaders who show some flexibility, team members who take on accountability and responsibility for the way they work, and an ongoing conversation about goals and output expectation. So we have been focused on that rather than time on the job. I don’t think any of those are unattractive skills to master.”

Emma Kelly, head of HR at Vodafone New Zealand, says it offered remote working before Covid hit.

“We have all got laptops with Sim cards so you can work wherever you want. On top of that we have got staff based in different locations around the country so managing remote teams is not new for our people leaders.”

Kelly says that was a major point of difference, as other organisations she had worked at had faced a radical shift when Covid hit.

“But Covid obviously accelerated digital adoption by up to about five years.”

She says that on top of the remote access tools, Vodafone had set up new tools to help leaders consider the impacts on people when they were in a Covid lockdown situation which was different from day-to-day work.

“That is just reminders that people are juggling small children and home schooling and so the ways we would typically expect to do work, a normal office hours day, might need to flex to accommodate the diverse needs of a workforce that is trying to juggle.”

Kelly, who has been at Vodafone for only six months, says one difference she has noticed is that every meeting has a Microsoft Teams meeting request in it, allowing people to join either digitally or physically.

“You don’t need to ask for it. The expectation is that you attend the meeting, not where you attend the meeting from.”

She says that on average, staff came into the office two or three days a week, but it is left up to teams to work that out and it depends on the type of work they do.

“My team has a preference to be in the office a lot because we are engaging with others in the company a lot.

“If you are doing independent work, just sitting at a desk in an office seems kind of pointless in some ways when you could be avoiding traffic congestion and sitting at home and having that time in the day to get exercise in and connect with your kids when they get home. That is the benefit to me – that flexibility and trust is given really freely.

“The culture is very much we look at outcomes rather than clocking in and clocking out.

“I have worked in environments where that is not the case and it can be quite stressful.”

She doesn’t see working from home or the bach on a Friday as an issue.

“If you are lucky enough to be able to work from a bach then good on you. As long as you are contributing in a way that you would be if you were in the office or WFH – we have been promoting free-range working and people have really appreciated that.”

But she acknowledges not everyone sees WFH as a good thing.

“Even large firms globally are polarised.”

Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon was recently quoted as saying working from home was “not a new normal” for the investment banking giant, calling it an “aberration”.

Kelly says her personal view is that it is the people connection that matters.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to connect in person. But it does mean you need to take the time to get to know someone, to understand things from their perspective to help inform the decisions you take.”

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