The COVID-19 pandemic pushed businesses to do things differently in order to keep operating. out of necessity comes innovation – and these four organisations are taking what they’ve learnt into the future.
Extreme remote work
Mantel Group has thrived on pushing the boundaries since the tech consultancy was founded in Melbourne in 2017. The company – made up of several smaller specialist firms doing everything from building data-science solutions to developing custom software architecture – eschews policies in favour of five principles (including “make good choices” and “love what you do and be awesome at it”). So when COVID-19 pushed its employees into remote work – and by doing so, proved to its clients that projects could still be delivered on time and to the same high standard – Mantel Group chose to build working hubs in enticing locations.
Even though remote work was technically okay with the company before the pandemic, most of Mantel Group’s 350 staff worked from either the Melbourne or Sydney offices. “Our clients are mostly in those two cities,” says Caroline Henshaw, head of people and culture, “and we were always a little bit nervous about telling our people that they could all be remote. The expectation of clients is that they would be in an office somewhere.”
The pandemic changed that. And as restrictions eased and workplaces reopened, the group decided it was an opportunity to do things differently, beyond the hybrid WFH/office model that many organisations are adopting.
Each year, Mantel employees have a review called My Deal. “On your work anniversary, we meet to talk about what’s important to you for the next year, which might be extra parental leave or different flexibilities,” says Henshaw.
At his My Deal session 18 months before the pandemic, DigIO software engineer Ben Howl proposed moving with his family from Melbourne to Magnetic Island in Far North Queensland. Once he’d squared it away with his clients, including one of the big four banks, he set off for the tropics.
“He made it work,” says Henshaw. “And then when we got to his My Deal conversation in 2020, he said, ‘Now what I really want is some colleagues here. How about we put an office on the island?’ We had a laugh but afterwards we thought about it. Why not? The timing was perfect because I was working through our workplace strategy around what we could change after what’s happened during COVID-19.”
Henshaw says that “the only limit to our growth is finding enough talent”. So discovering fresh ways to make Mantel Group attractive to the precious tech talent pool is essential. The new Magnetic Island work hub, with room for 20 in the office, is open for business, with “Mantelorians”, as they call themselves, able to go there for a working holiday, perhaps with their family, team members or even clients.
Bookings are via the company’s app. “Because of COVID-19, we book to go into any office and now the drop-down list for bookings has Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Magnetic Island.” If a Melbourne-based Mantelorian wants to winter on Magnetic Island, says Henshaw, “as long as the client’s comfortable, go for it”.
Another work hub is due to open in Queenstown, New Zealand, in June. “We have a lot of snowboarders so that was the place people wanted us to open next,” says Henshaw. The Kiwi work hub is in a shared workplace and Mantel Group will book additional space as needed. “More hubs are in our future but we’re also looking for bigger office spaces in Sydney and Melbourne and we’re setting up in Auckland,” she says. There won’t be tumbleweeds in their city spaces, either. “We’ve spoken to all of our team and 90 per cent of them want to return to offices for half the week.”
Digital leadership and drone inspections
Engineering, design and advisory firm Aurecon has its headquarters in Melbourne as well as 15 offices around Australia and 16 internationally. It already had flexible work practices pre-pandemic and was shoring up remote working tools so was well-placed to take the WFH plunge. Once it did, CEO William Cox says it was critical to ramp up communication. “You couldn’t communicate enough with staff to keep them informed in a very uncertain time.” Aurecon ran virtual town hall meetings on Microsoft Teams every couple of weeks and Cox made update videos “to keep staff informed and also be honest about the things we didn’t know about”.
But Cox, a civil engineer, was most conscious that Aurecon needed to pay particular attention to its younger staff. “It’s an interesting time to look back on, particularly in terms of how people learnt,” he says. “In our business, younger engineers and science graduates learn from more senior people in an office environment and all of that disappeared. We had to put in place different mechanisms for people to learn in a virtual environment.”
The company leaned heavily on its existing Aurecon University platform for online training and is continuing to assess what additional support emerging professionals need. It also set up “virtual coffee roulette” to connect people across the organisation. Participants are matched in pairs each month to catch up for a virtual coffee, aiming to use the time to get to know about their colleague’s journey in Aurecon and to seek advice.
But an engineering firm needs more than just online meetings to keep its projects humming along. The company’s geospatial team developed a methodology for local staff to 3D-scan a site “when you couldn’t mobilise a group of engineers to do inspections”, says Cox. Deemed essential workers, one or two Aurecon staff were allowed on site, under strict COVID-19 protocols, but they had to devise a method to capture and share the information with teams working on the project. “They figured out a way to use their mobile phones, taking a whole bunch of overlapping images, then they used software to create a 3D model from the photos all stitched together.”
Using 3D images and point cloud scans enabled virtual walk-throughs of all facets of a project. Aurecon had been using many of these tools before the pandemic to build sophisticated simulations for clients but the use of digital tools and drones for inspections (literally) soared. “The way it increased was a revelation,” says Cox.
Aurecon’s board members also did regular site tours in person but when that became impossible, project engineers took iPads and conducted virtual inspections. “That’s a significant saving in time and a much less risky way of taking people out into a construction site, where everyone has to be properly inducted and have all of the right escorts and PPE.”
Cox says these remote site inspections and virtual tours were a lesson that “we can bake into the business”. It’s a long-term win for health and safety, now that engineers, designers and clients can monitor the progress of a project from their desks.
That said, site visits will remain integral to operations, according to Cox, whether that’s project engineers, the leadership team or the board. “It’s absolutely fascinating and important to be on the ground and see the scale and complexity of some of the projects,” he says. “However, digital technology gives us options. It’s like a lot of things we’ve learnt in the past year. It’s not either/or – it’s mixing it up.”
Time to tinker
CSIRO scientists spend their careers inventing amazing new ways of doing things. But like everyone else, they have to prioritise and sometimes don’t have the time to experiment with notions that aren’t critical to getting a project done. For Doojin Vak, principal research scientist at CSIRO’s printed photovoltaics research group, the pandemic gave him time to devise a gamechanging machine for his team’s work.
During lockdown, Vak’s team couldn’t access the CSIRO lab in Melbourne’s Clayton, where they are developing manufacturing technologies for the fabrication of printed solar film. These super-lightweight, flexible solar cells have the potential to solarise everything from tents, windows and awnings to a laptop bag that can charge a computer on the go.
While many of his colleagues used lockdown to write papers, Vak chose to try a novel technique. Working in his home garage – using parts left over from student experiments and a 3D printer – Vak built a machine that automates making and testing the printed solar film as his team works to optimise its performance.
“There are three key components to this research innovation: automatic fabrication, automatic testing and automatic analysis of the data using AI,” says Vak. In the future, it will be “a closed loop – the AI will analyse the data and that can feed into automatic fabrication”.
Previously, the researchers could manually make and test up to only 20 solar cells in a day. Vak’s automated system can make and test up to 12,000 cells a day – although he says the optimum number is between 2000 and 6000 – and can function without researchers even being present.
The invention helped when the team was first back at work and had to physically distance. It also saves Vak from donning a lab coat and safety glasses to go into the lab to check the machine because he can control the lab’s PCs from his desktop computer. “That was possible before but we’d never needed to develop a way to do it.”
Vak says the experience proved the value of carving out time to stop and think outside his to-do list. While he doubts that, in the future, “I can actually ‘stop’ as much as I did in lockdown, I would ‘stop’ to make a plan for the greater long-term outcomes”. He adds that the team’s research is further advanced because of his lockdown invention, which he’s now refining. “Research is exciting but not every part of it; there are some things that you have to repeat over and over. We make ideas but proving them is the boring part – I want to remove this and only do the more exciting part!”
During the pandemic, Optus dialled up its customer care and will keep many of the new initiatives in place in the long term, says Emma McRobert, vice-president of customer care.
“We have about 3500 people answering customer enquiries every day and originally had a three-year plan to move to Community of Experts [COE], based on the T-Mobile Team of Experts model in the United States, with some tweaks. It means that every time you contact Optus, you go to the same team. If you are living in Sydney’s Newtown, you’ll go to the Newtown team.
The agents are called experts and whoever takes that customer enquiry is responsible for resolving it – they can’t transfer; they have to take ownership and make sure they follow it up.
We realised during COVID-19 that there was never a better time to implement change so we decided to expedite bringing in the COE. Instead of three years, we did it in 11 months. We would normally fly trainers around the country or overseas to train these teams in new processes but we delivered it virtually over Microsoft Teams, with 20 to 30 people per class.
With all our call-centre staff in Australia sent home, we also had to create a solution we called Experts at Home – and that was not in the plan. It’ll now stay on for people who want to work from home. However, the interesting thing is that the vast majority of people want to come back to work in the contact centres in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
We’re continuing to mature the model, making sure it’s working the way we designed it. It means we can move to future stages more quickly, embedding skills more thoroughly and expediting communities managing their own P&L. Our goal is for our communities to be empowered to run their COE like any small business. We are now well on our way to bringing this idea to life sooner because we went super-fast in the first phase.
We thought a lot about how to stop the old ways of working from creeping back in. The approach we took was to create a blueprint of how we want COE to be. We’ve documented it and created living, breathing artefacts that our teams use to ensure their community is working to the way it was designed. Our coaches and community managers are listening to and reading customer interactions the moment they happen so if something isn’t going quite right, we can correct it quickly.
I was talking to my leadership team about how we did such a phenomenal job last year – communicating better than ever, being more empathetic with each other, working across divisions. How do we keep that? By doing what we did during the pandemic: listening, connecting, holding each other to account. That’s our plan. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out.”
Image credit: Sam Moqadam, Joshua Fuller.