21 January 2024

Working from home here to stay but the office is still the engine room

| Ian Bushnell
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A man working from home on a laptop answering a call with a headset

The pandemic made working from home commonplace, but there are limitations to off-site work. Photo: File.

Technology saved much of Australia’s workforce during the pandemic and showed how disengaged public services and businesses could be from a fixed location.

But the commercial property industry and conservative bosses rue the day it became clear that the workplace landscape had irrevocably changed.

The property industry because it meant less demand for office space and put the value of CBDs in doubt, and employers and managers because they felt productivity was at stake – and for some, their sense of control – but also that the creativity of their people working in isolation would be diminished.

For staff, it meant no commute, a saving in time and money, a better work-life balance and for those with children, a greater ability to juggle those complex demands.

Post-pandemic, the push is continuing to get people back to the office.

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There remains a lingering attitude among some of ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’, despite studies showing productivity did not collapse and that working from home has enhanced the lives of many and improved the quality of their output.

Technology cuts both ways. Managing staff in the era of Zoom may be different and require new skills, but there is no reason why a poor performer should be able to elude oversight.

But the genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

While staff still wanting to retain the benefits of working from home are resisting demands to return to the office, employers also have to face a competitive labour market in which flexibility is a key bargaining chip.

And in a tight market, if a business or public service department can access skills across the country without a physical presence, there are obvious benefits.

There are no moving costs or time lags for notice and relocation or upheavals if the signing doesn’t work out.

The media industry has been employing or contracting people off-site, some in far-flung locations, for years.

Of course, there are limits to the practice, but as a principle, it is a legitimate way to obtain the skills you need.

What has evolved is the hybrid office, where not all staff are at their desks every day of the week but coming in for meetings or to keep in touch with teams and office events.

Commercial property is adjusting to this with building and office design adapting to the new reality of less space and shared desks.

But there are valid reasons why we can’t turn our backs on the office altogether.

Flexibility is not a one-way street.

Humans are essentially social beings, and while virtual contact can be productive, it does have limitations. The benefits of physical interaction, either one-on-one or as a team, should not be underestimated.

The social interaction of the office can be vital to creative problem solving, developing a business culture, team building and morale. The office can be the engine room and glue that holds an operation together.

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Many people perform better in a social environment and are probably happy to return to the office, unless their commute is diabolical. That is another story.

Working from home in some form and at particular times in our lives and career paths is here to stay.

But the office is also not going anywhere.

Employers and staff need to acknowledge each others’ needs and find a negotiated path forward that satisfies the demands of the business, retains skills and keeps workers on-side and productive.

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If you were Mega Corp and wanted to own everything, you’d want no competition in small business, and would therefore love this working from home horse pucky

Agreed. But hybrid has many definitions, and the socialisation need isn’t that big so long as you adjust how you work. There a a good number of Atlassians working in Canberra. Most of us meet monthly in what we call a Regional Connection Gathering, but that’s not to serve commercial property landlords nor dinosaur managers: most of us are on different teams and we use a co-working space. Some individually head out to a a cafe and work with friends, some of us use the flexibility we have to meet friends for lunch. Depending on roll, some of us head up to Sydney every so often for a workshop. But everyone participates in half-yearly gatherings with our teams. Either way, productivity is up and money spent in office space goes far down.

Tom Worthington4:54 pm 22 Jan 24

Yes, social interaction of the office is helpful for many, but they don’t need to necessarily be working with the people who happen to be in the office next to them. Yesterday, I applied for a job, for the first time in a long time. I noticed that it had the option of being online. But I would like the opportunity to meet some colleagues occasionally.

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