What the Modern Workplace Will Look Like After Covid-19

Work from home office post Covid-19

The pandemic has revolutionised the way we work but what does that mean in practice? Remote, back to the office or something in between? Susan Horsburgh discovers how Australian companies are reshaping their policies for the modern workplace.

If hell is other people then for some Australians, the lockdown workplace was pretty close to nirvana. They traded in a crowded commute and motley crew of co-workers for a sleep-in and the occupants of their own home, from homeschooling kids to needy cavoodles. Admittedly, some swaps were better than others.

Still, more than 70 per cent of Australians have said a resounding “no” to working every day at the office post-pandemic – and most companies are willing to come to the party. With the fight for talent a hot topic, businesses are prioritising happier employees (as well as cheaper office space), even if the jury is out on the impact of fewer face-to-face interactions. One thing’s for sure: pre-2020 working life is gone for good.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield – who changed office communication forever with his messaging app for business – has predicted the end of “factory-farm, battery-chicken desks with people sitting by themselves not talking to anyone else, just using their laptop”. According to the Canadian entrepreneur, the pandemic has proven that that kind of work can be done anywhere and the office should instead be “the cultural touchstone for the company”, used for hosting clients, holding staff meetings and inducting new employees.

Some workers have even swapped the city for the country, moving far from their corporate HQs in search of a better quality of life. “It’s not just people getting used to not having to go into the office or wearing high heels,” said Butterfield. “People have made life choices that preclude going back to normal.”

So how are some of our biggest companies reacting and what will the new workplace look like for them?

Totally remote

In line with other international tech giants, Australia’s Atlassian has embraced remote working with gusto, declaring that its staff can do their jobs anywhere in the world and show their faces in the nearest office just four times a year. “We’re choosing to be bold,” says Atlassian’s work futurist, Dominic Price. “We’re in a global war for talent and employees want change. Just think of all the people who can’t physically get into a CBD office because of care responsibilities, disabilities or housing affordability. We are tearing down geographical and physical barriers.”

Atlassian’s policy is designed not only to attract the best and brightest but to retain the company’s 6000-plus global employees. More than 1000 Atlassian workers have moved permanently since the pandemic began and under the Team Anywhere incentive, more plan to follow. Price concedes that a scattered workforce needs more than four in-person meetings a year to bond and excel but that’s where lateral thinking kicks in.

“We’ve seen some awesome examples of new rituals being built,” he says. “My team bans ‘shop talk’ for the first five minutes on calls and our Trello team has created a virtual water-cooler moment where each team member shares an example of their weekend activities on a Trello board. People are free to experiment and find what works for them.”

SEE ALSO: How to Win Skilled Employees Post Covid-19

High flexibility

Although not quite as radical as Atlassian, Sydney-based graphic design platform Canva has unveiled a new workplace policy, asking its more than 2000 worldwide employees to come to the office just “twice a season” once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. The move came after a staff survey found four out of five Canva employees felt productive working from home and the same proportion wanted to balance that new flexibility with regular in-office collaboration.

The corporate sector is following suit. Telstra, Xero, SAP and Deloitte have also adopted policies that allow staff to divide their work weeks between office and home as they see fit. Telstra has long been a pioneer in workplace flexibility – even before the pandemic, its office-based employees worked an average of two days from home – but the telco has doubled down, allowing employees to “work where, when and how they want”.

“We’re not asking people to stay out of the office and we’re not asking them to come in,” says Alex Badenoch, Telstra’s transformation, communications and people group executive, who adds that most employees see the value in attending face-to-face brainstorming sessions or team lunches. “It’s now our job to ‘earn the commute’ so we have to give people a compelling reason to come in.”

Badenoch says the pandemic has blown arguments against flexibility out of the water and companies that resist it will regret it, especially when international firms can access Australian talent and fewer tech experts are coming into the country. “It’s largely about trust,” she adds. “Workplaces for a long time have believed that if people are beavering away at a desk, they are productive but someone can be 10 times as productive as another person in half the time. Top talent are motivated people who produce fabulous outcomes wherever they are.”

Researchers have warned that a mix of remote and in-office workers can potentially create a two-class system, where those more likely to work from home – namely women and minorities – are penalised for not being visible when promotion opportunities arise. Badenoch, however, argues that ultra-flexibility evens the playing field because it normalises remote work: “It’s less important that you’re in the office by a particular hour,” she says, “and it enables pick-ups and drop-offs.”

SEE ALSO: Why the Four Day Work Week Could Be the Future


After Telstra introduced All Roles Flex in 2014, putting the onus on managers to explain why a role couldn’t be done flexibly if that’s what the employee wanted, public sector organisations followed its example, with the NSW government making all positions flexible in 2016. In March this year, the Victorian government updated its workplace policy, ensuring that all roles have some flexibility but stipulating that public servants work in the office a minimum of three days a week.

Most of corporate Australia seems to be favouring this kind of hybrid arrangement, including the big four banks, with workers generally spending two to three days in the office. NAB’s people and culture group executive Susan Ferrier says coming together in person remains vital for problem-solving and training. “We learn best,” she says, “when there’s someone sitting beside us.”

Sian Lewis, Commonwealth Bank’s human resources group executive, agrees. “Time spent in the workplace for connection, innovation and collaboration is as important as the advantages of working remotely,” she says. “Finding the right balance is key.” That means taking a “test and learn” approach, with teams free to settle on schedules that work for them.

As a startup, Verve – Australia’s first ethical super fund for women – was already offering its staff flexibility pre-pandemic, partly as a sweetener for not being able to pay as well as the big corporates but also because two of its three co-founders live in regional areas. There were three main hubs – in Sydney, Melbourne and Byron Bay – where Verve’s 10 staff members would come together one or two days a week.

Since COVID-19 hit, the company has tried to foster a strong culture with twice weekly online coffee chats (“about anything but work”) and a “weekly wins” session. “We have a bit of an awkward dance over Zoom,” says CEO Christina Hobbs, “and share our wins, large and small.” To make sure remote workers feel equally included in meetings, those together in the office have to Zoom separately, even if that means sitting in different corners.

Pre-2020, some investors had questioned Verve’s remote work policy and recommended one central office but the fund has grown more than 150 per cent since the pandemic began, putting those fears to rest. “The pandemic period has given us the confidence to know that a remote workplace culture is actually the best for us in the long term,” says Hobbs.

SEE ALSO: 10 Best Working From Home Tips From People In the Know

Almost business as usual

Not everyone is convinced, though. Dexus executive general manager Kevin George, who oversees the real estate company’s $26 billion office portfolio, urges caution. While Dexus offers its employees some flexibility, George says there are not many roles in his team that would justify more than one day a week at home.

“Our business thrives on having more people in the office more often, because that’s how we think we work better,” he says. “It’s good for customers to know we’re accessible – not just on the phone or a Zoom call but to trot down to the office they’re building and deal with an issue if need be. We make quick decisions and we’d much rather have a two-minute conversation than have someone write a three-page email. You need to develop high levels of trust quickly to get things done and it’s very difficult to achieve that in a virtual sense.”

George argues that remote working also denies younger employees opportunities to socialise and grow professionally. “In the office, you learn by osmosis,” he says. “I really feel for the younger cohort. Sure, they’d like some flexibility but, given the trade-off, they’re much happier to work more time in the office, learning, being visible and having access to the leaders.”

Employees working from home, he says, could be disadvantaged in a hybrid team. “The companies that say it’s not going to impact promotion – that’s a fair aspiration but I think they have jumped the gun because we are very early in this experiment. And individuals who trust their leadership to take care of their career trajectory – I just think it’s not going to end well for some people.”

George asks the questions many employers are probably too afraid to articulate. For a start, he wonders whether those seeking more flexibility simply want to work less: the pandemic has prompted a wholesale re-evaluation of priorities, he points out, and the booming property prices in regional Australia are proof of that. He also ponders whether employers should really have to “earn the commute” and “turn the office into a kombucha soaked fairground attraction”.

Still, there’s no doubt that George is outnumbered. Each working model has its pros and cons but the flexibility advocates seem to be in the lead. “We need to be aware of the risks and manage them but I see the upsides as far, far greater than the negatives,” says Badenoch. “Whether it’s good or bad is up to us. There is no going back.”

SEE ALSO: Why Soft Skills in the Workplace Are More Important Than Ever Before

Image credit: Domenico Loia

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