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As Canada gets back to the office, what can we learn from Australia and Britain?

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As Canada emerges from the pandemic, public sector leaders are grappling with returning their teams to work. What is important to staff? What can be learned from the experiences in other countries? And how can we work together to tackle these difficult challenges?

These were the issues discussed in a June webinar hosted by Nous Group as part of our work supporting organizational performance. As a Nous Principal in the Toronto office, I was pleased to moderate the webinar, “Returning to the Office: Lessons for Canada from Australia and the UK”, which explored experiences and insights from those that have already returned to work.

We began by taking participants through a recent Statistics Canada survey, "Working from home: Productivity and preferences". The study found that the number of people working from home has increased eight-fold and that 90 per cent of Canadians were as productive working from home as they were in the office. The study found that the biggest cause of productivity loss was lack of interaction with co-workers and caring for family members. Looking ahead to future intentions, the study found that 4 in 5 workers wanted to work from home at least half of the time.

Australian experience shows return-to-work decisions have a big impact

Participants then heard from Penelope Cottrill, a Nous Principal in the Melbourne office, about the Australian back-to-work experience. Increasing numbers of Australians have been back in the office since late last year, although there have been plenty of bumps in the road and variations between states. Penelope offered five key insights about Australia’s experience:

  1. Remote work can be productive. Many organizations have gathered their own data, which shows that remote work can be as productive, sometimes even more productive, than working from the office. In one survey, 94 per cent of employers said their company productivity was the same or higher than before people were working remotely.
  2. Remote working works for employees – and they value it. Most employees are looking for a hybrid model combining remote and office-based work. They are voting with their feet; the Property Council of Australia found that worker preferences are the main barrier to a return to full office occupancy. Not only do employees want hybrid working, they value One study of employees found that working partly in the office and partly at home is valued at the equivalent of 6 per cent of their wage.
  3. Doing nothing on hybrid work means falling behind. Globally, there is a movement to a 3-2 workplace: 3 days in the office and 2 days at home or elsewhere. Further, a recent global study found that Australians are the most likely to change jobs if their work returns to fully on-site. So there is an impetus to do something on hybrid working.
  4. Organizations making the most progress have some common practices.
    1. Use data. Everyone we’ve spoken to with a hypothesis about what their workforce wants has been proven wrong in some way by surveying their employees. Making data-based decisions about the way forward is crucial, not just at a point in time but ongoing as things evolve.
    2. Co-design programs of work. Build a coalition of leaders working with staff to co-design what needs to shift to enable a successful hybrid working. This can result in a holistic program of work addressing workplace, technology, flexibility guidelines, recognition, inclusion ... everything.
    3. Take early action on guidelines and capability. Even if we don’t have all the answers, staff are looking for guidance. Some are weighing up whether they can move further away from the office, because they won’t face a daily commute five days a week. Staff are looking for clarity. In terms of capability, we’re seeing investment in leading hybrid teams. Middle managers tend to be the ones talking to staff about how they are doing, if they are planning to come back to the office and does it meet team needs. That’s a new skill set we’re asking of middle leaders. We see organizations investing in getting those leaders the confidence and capability to negotiate those challenging conversations and decisions.
    4. Trial small innovations. For example, one human resources director has negotiated a salary sacrifice for e-bikes, as his workforce is reluctant to return to the office because they don’t want to use public transportation. At zero cost to the employer, he can offer e-bike salary sacrifice to staff, who can now get to work without sweating and without needing fancy end-of-trip facilities, enabling them to get to work safely.
  5. Leaders must be alert to potential downsides. There are potential downsides to these new ways of working at an individual, organizational and societal level. At the individual level, there are wellbeing risks and potentially reduced opportunity for learning and shrinking professional networks. At the organizational level, there are implications for sustaining organizational culture and diversity. Australian research shows there are patterns in who wants to return to the office: if you’re an older man in management, the office may seem a lot more appealing than if you’re a younger woman. At a societal level, if companies adopt “work from anywhere” policies, do you now need to be the best in the world – or the cheapest in the world – to secure a job? Are we setting the course for a new wave of offshoring of work?

In the UK flexibility was a big success factor

Participants also heard from Tom McCormack, CEO of the UK Marine Management Organisation (MMO), which has 450 staff across 17 locations. Speaking about his experience of returning to work in the UK, Tom shared three lessons:

  1. Principles over rules. It is better to provide your teams with overarching guidance than prescriptive do’s and don’ts. MMO is seeking to build on what works well and to change what doesn’t, along the way seeking to be supportive, sensitive and flexible by enabling colleague choice where possible.
  2. Focus on the power of the team. Remote work means people may drop off the radar, so it’s important your employees feel part of the team even when they’re not together physically. MMO has sought to continue to provide leadership and support for colleagues, including staying in touch, meeting personal needs, delivering performance management and ensuring fair access to development and progression opportunities.
  3. What people say isn’t necessarily what they will do. Some people in MMO said they wanted to return to physical buildings yet when the buildings opened not many actually returned. MMO has used “give it a go” days to encourage colleagues to return to the office.

The UK effort to return to work is being supported by the Smarter Working Business Reference Group, of which Nous’s London-based Principal Peter Horne is a member.

Canadian leaders need to remain nimble

For the many Canadian public sector leaders who attended the session there were four takeaways:

  1. People’s behaviours will not necessarily follow their stated intentions. Using employee data is important for planning but just because your employees have answered a survey in a certain way it doesn’t mean their behaviour will match.
  2. Plan slowly and do not commit to a single path forward. People’s attitudes can change over time and COVID is unpredictable. Building flexibility into your return to the office planning will give you options as circumstances and the views of your workforce change.
  3. These are uncharted waters with many potential hazards. Leaders must be attuned to the well-being of their workforce, the inequities that may form over time and the impact remote work has on recruitment and retention efforts. Using data, focusing on the power of the team, and empowering and training middle managers are ways to combat some of these hazards.
  4. Leadership behaviour matters a great deal. If you commit to a blended work arrangement then leaders need to role-model this behaviour for it to work. If the CEO comes into the office every day, this behaviour will likely cascade down to every member of the organization. Organizations need to be prepared to call out rogue leaders who don’t model the desired behaviours.

However public sector leaders decide to tackle these post-COVID challenges it can be helpful to learn from other jurisdictions, share insights with fellow public sector leaders, and work with a trusted partner who can help solve problems and turn insights into action.

Get in touch to discuss how Nous can help your organization adapt to life in an era of COVID.

Connect with Andrew Hamilton on LinkedIn.

Prepared with input from Penelope Cottrill, Susan Underhill, Kelly Rowe, and Jordan Lazarus.

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