A new employment strategy for a new time
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
The opening line of the famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, can in many ways sum up the experience we all went through during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.
From an employment perspective, this is certainly evident through such things as the ‘great resignation’, wage increases, terminations due to a failure to comply with Government directives and Company Policy associated with vaccination requirements, mental health issues and of course, ‘working from home’.
If we take working from home as an example, some employers can be very motivated to get employees back into the office fulltime. However, while this represents the ‘best of times’ for some employers, it represents the ‘worst of times’, for many employees.
A recent research paper completed by the Australian Government’s Productivity Commission on working from home (the report), has identified a number of matters that have come out of the last two and a half years, which employers would be well placed in taking into consideration.
Obviously not all work can be done from home. The report indicated that, according to 2016 census information, approximately 35% of employees worked in jobs that could be performed from home. The other obvious factor here is that the majority of those roles are performed by people who have higher levels of education, higher income and who work fulltime. But with the rapid adoption of working from home forced on our society, the removal of the stigma behind ‘people who work from home’ and the accessibility to enabling technology, this has also increased workforce participation for many people, and for employers this can be viewed as an untapped labour market.
Employers are now able to tap into labour markets in regional locations, where sometimes valuable skillsets are not fully utilised locally due to lack of employment opportunities. Parents, carers, and people with disabilities are an untapped market for work that can be done from home. According to the report, women still carry the burden of child raising responsibilities in the home, so access to employment opportunities for them are an attractive proposition and a benefit to all. As the report states, “An expansion of job opportunities accessible to these groups, driven by an increase in working from home, would therefore improve equity in economic security, and have broader societal benefits”.
Work life balance
The ability for your employees to effectively balance their personal lives and their work lives, can be positively impacted through providing employees the opportunity to work from home. Working from home allows people to ‘work in their rhythm’ and to balance their personal commitments with their work commitments.
If you consider the commute to and from work as an example, the report indicated that fulltime employees in our major cities spent approximately 67 minutes per day commuting to and from work. If this time is given back to employees through the option to work from home, employees can better balance their day-to-day lives, and as the report stated, “survey evidence suggests that many workers consider it to be the most beneficial aspect of working from home”. Ultimately organisations that allow employees to work from home, as opposed to forcing employees to come into the office, will benefit from better retention and will also assist with attracting talent, as the now widely accepted “hybrid model” is something job seekers are insisting on.
Saying that, working from home is not without its challenges for employees and for management when trying to develop a positive culture. What the report indicates is that women found it harder to balance work and family due to an inability to disengage from work, while men found it harder to bring their work into their homes (Oakman et al. 2020).
The key to a successful hybrid model is to allow employees the ability to make their own decisions based on their needs and not to force working from home or attending the workplace on them. While working from home does present challenges in the creation of a positive workplace culture, through a lack of in person connectivity, there are ways to manage and lead your teams to encourage regular in person connectivity without forcing it on employees. This concept was highlighted in the report by (Karanikas and Cauchi 2020), who indicated that when working from home or not working from home is forced upon people, it is likely to have an adverse impact on them.
The balancing act of people and productivity
Employers are right to question the impact on productivity and some employees would have to agree. The report states that, “both managers and employees consider that in some cases, productivity has been lower”.
With this considered, the report indicated that successful employers are those that are evolving and adopting a hybrid system that supports their economic model, and are subsequently employing based on that. This is likely to have a positive impact on the broader economy as employers and employees work together to figure this out. The employment of the right people into the right role has never been more important, with psychometric, ability and personality testing being one of the key tools to assist with this.
Those employers that have a model where they are allowing employees to work from home are having to take the necessary steps to attract employees that can be more productive when working autonomously. As the report states, “Firms are unlikely to willingly sacrifice productivity, and so have incentives to systematically select higher‑productivity workers to work from home”.
On the flip side of this coin, employees are also selecting their jobs based on the ability to choose how they work, which may result in employees settling for roles that require less productive work and consequently might pay less, but they benefit from, let’s say, the removal of a daily commute. The report states, “It is theoretically possible that, as labour reallocates, some workers could opt to do less productive work at home by finding an employer willing to pay lower wages. This is expected only when the wage reduction is less than the (monetary or non‑monetary) benefit of working from home to the employee, such as the avoided commute or greater autonomy over workflow”.
What does the report tell employers?
Employers would be well placed to consider number of things as they look to employ people in this new environment.
Developing team cohesion
Cohesion can be developed through engagement strategies including creative avenues of connecting teams, sound leadership and the respectful implementation of office work and the ability to work from home. This will require getting back to basics, leaders leading in the new world by pausing and having some foundational respectful conversations. This may take some time, but positive employee engagement will always result in a good outcome for the parties of the employment relationship.
Appropriate Policy development
The implementation of thoughtful, clear employment Policy and Procedure will assist in the development of new ways of working and the implementation of a workable hybrid model that provides employees with some choice of where they work, and provides the employers with a means of maintaining key productivity targets. The development of this Policy and Procedure will need to balance employment law, case law and the needs of the business, so the complexity of getting Policy right, sits squarely with the employer.
The right person for the right job
Recruitment has never been more important to employers. The ability to access untapped pools of talent will require employers to think outside the box and this might mean engaging employees that do not attend the workplace as much as they may have in the past. However, this will require employers to be better at getting the right person, who is able to demonstrate an ability to work autonomously. The use of tools, such as psychometric testing to assess capability and personality will be essential in assisting employers achieve this.
The challenges that these social changes bring to mental health of all employees is something that employers need to consider in the new employment world. The implementation of benefits that exist outside the standard pay and condition that employers have provided previously is going to be vital to the value proposition of an organisation. This might include Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), provision health care, allowances or equipment to assist employees to set up and maintain their home workspace, amending ways of working to assist employees needs and developing avenues to communicate to teams remotely.
The key themes behind Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities is social anarchy, resurrection, transformation, and the belief that the trials and tribulations will, and have led to a new and better society. As we dust ourselves off after the trials and tribulations of COVID-19 and the impacts on employment, it is important that employers consider how best to lead, engage, select and employ their employees in this brave new world. This is going to take some work from employers, but if done correctly, employment for all parties can be ‘the best of times’.
To read the full article, Working from Home – Commission Research Paper by the Governments Productivity Council, click here.