During COVID most employees of Rachel Wright’s IT support team were working from home, but she soon came up against logistical challenges.
“I find we always need to have one or two people in the office … because we get a lot of deliveries coming in, someone always needs to be here to accept those,” she said.
“And employee communications, it’s easier to just talk to the person next to you.”
She has now mostly brought everyone back into the office.
But she also wants to give her employees flexibility where she can, and they can still work from home in certain situations such as school holidays or days when they just need to do life admin.
As the COVID pandemic recedes, Ms Wright is among many business owners trying to find the right balance between meeting organisational needs and giving workers the flexibility they have come to expect.
Employees, employers not always on same page
Research from the Melbourne Institute in July this year found many workers and employers disagreed on what the working-from-home settings should be.
Some 61 per cent of workers reported having tasks that could be performed at home.
But while 88 per cent of workers wanted to spend at least some days at home, only 49 per cent said their employers would agree to a hybrid work arrangement.
Melanie Atkinson works for Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) helping design projects that reduce carbonisation.
It is part of the reason she loves working from home two days a week — helping reduce the environmental impact of car travel.
But she also values the flexibility that allows her to be more involved with her two young children.
“For me it’s about being an active part of my kids’ lives and being able to do school drop off and pick ups, but then also being able to flex between some thinking work that you need to do at home but then, you know, the face-to-face time in the meetings,” she said.
“I’ll help them get ready for school, take them to do that drop off then I’m back here, so I’m only 15-20 minutes delayed,” she said.
“Whereas if I’ve got to drive into work after school drop off then I’m not getting in till after nine, so that means I can extend my work day from here, instead of missing out at the other end of the day.”
She is one of a growing number of workers who will not settle for anything less than flexible working options.
Employee expectations changing
FMG’s leadership and talent general manager, Jackie Oates, thinks flexible working is here to stay, with the company seeing a 30 per cent increase in such arrangements.
“We’re definitely seeing on the market that a number of our prospective candidates are expecting a flexible working arrangement,” Ms Oates said.
She sees flexible working as important in supporting diversity in the workforce.
“We’re actually seeing an increase in female members joining the Fortescue team, and I have no doubt the flexible working plays a really important part in that,” she said.
But like a number of big firms, Fortescue is also offering in-office perks like a wellness centre with yoga and meditation classes and an in-office creche, in a bid to entice workers back at least a few days a week.
“We were actually really encouraged when the COVID restrictions were lifted, we actually found that our team members were really wanting to come back into the office,” she said.
“What we’ve seen emerge is a real hybrid working model where people have the opportunity to work from home but they also love to come into the office and connect and interact and collaborate with their team members.”
Cost of living playing a role
Organisational expert Scott Fitzgerald said the current economic climate was influencing workers’ desire to stay home.
“Particularly during this cost-of-living crisis, it’s attractive for many people to work from home and avoid the cost of commuting, the cost of parking, those sorts of things,” he said.
And he believed building effective workplaces was not as simple as just getting people face-to-face.
“Organisational culture is based upon trust and respect and work-life balance, and so if organisations can provide that sort of flexibility they’ll provide a much better organisational culture,” he said.
But seeing the impact on businesses reliant on city workers, some governments are pushing for a return to a more traditional working arrangement.
WA Premier Mark McGowan is encouraging people to head back to the city, citing psychological benefits.
“I know I’m old-fashioned, I actually think there are strong benefits to be gained by people actually talking to one another, looking each other in the face,” he told ABC Perth recently.
Working from home ‘huge, natural experiment’
University of Western Australia psychology lecturer Darja Kragt said while mental health issues increased during the pandemic, it was not yet known exactly why that occurred.
“Is it purely that it was the social isolation of working from home, or was it because it was COVID and it’s a pandemic and it’s raging out there and people are feeling stressed and anxious?” she said.
“Working from home, we had this huge natural experiment over the last two years.”
Dr Kragt said advantages of working from home included being able to negotiate your own time, being closer to family and managing work-life balance.
But there were draw backs, including social isolation.
“COVID working from home was forced, so I think autonomy is really important to consider here,” she said.
“We need to give people autonomy of choice.
“What they want to do, what works best for them, what is the flexible mix and negotiate that as [an] individualised approach.”