CEO Voice: Flexibility now the new workplace norm

Article by Adrian Lowe

Source: The West Australian

If construction boss Paul Blackburne phones one of his team at 9.30am on a work day and they’re at the beach, he wants them to be proud of that. It means that they’re doing their job properly.

Embracing all forms of flexibility and shifting to outcomes-based work, rather than outputs, was a clear consensus among business leaders at the CEO Voice boardroom lunch series, hosted by The West Australian and AIM WA.

“Outcomes matter, not hours,” Mr Blackburne said. “We’ve actually started to talk about that you’re not allowed in the office before 8.30, you’re not allowed there after five o’clock.”

Leaders hope that as pandemic restrictions ease and more workers return to offices, lessons learnt will remain.

“What I think COVID has done is it’s really flipped flexibility from a nice to have and an exception to the rule to an expectation. And I don’t think that can be brought back very easily,” said Elizabeth Shaw, diversity and inclusion consulting partner at PwC.

“I think the connection between these increased expectations of flexibility and the scarcity of talent in the labour market means that the future of our workforce will be hybrid.”

Decisions made in the early days of the pandemic were still being felt now, others noted.

“Workplaces are saying ‘we’d like you to come back’ but people have now made the decision to be two or three hours away, and so it’s a negotiation about how many days do you actually need me in the office and I might couchsurf for one night so I can be in the office for two consecutive days,” Committee for Perth chief executive Marion Fulker said.

Dramatic workplace change had been accompanied by introspection, Legendary Training and Development director Greg Bridge.

“I think what’s happened here is that we have a lot more people that are that are not engaged, not happy with their work. And what COVID did was it possibly gave people permission to sort of think, ‘hang on a minute, maybe there’s something else I can do’,” he said.

“We’re all now having a look at how we’re going to reconnect with each other, to then look at how we then move to a common goal and mobilise ourselves in a direction that we get an outcome that you’re happy with.”

Leaders will have also to be more adept at managing teams in the post-COVID era, they agreed.

“We found that leaders need to lead very very differently,” Fortescue Metals Group people director Linda O’Farrell said. “And one of those things is (when) running a meeting, you always have a (Microsoft) Teams option. Someone is always on Teams.

“Because we’ve just been really open with just working in that way, it actually hasn’t been a struggle to get people back in.”

Foodbank WA chief executive Kate O’Hara said COVID had accelerated the push for tomorrow’s leaders to be very different to the leaders of the past.

New Work Health Safety rules defining psychosocial harm would also force change, she said.

Ms O’Hara said the new laws, on top of pandemic-induced changes, constituted a major change in leadership for those that started their careers decades ago.

“It’s a real challenge,” she said.

Ms Shaw added that psychological safety was being pushed to the fore by the reporting and inquiry into sexual harassment on WA mine sites.

Western Australian Local Government Association chief executive Nick Sloan said it was important to consider what flexibility looked like for all workers to ensure it wasn’t exclusively focused on white-collar professions

“How are we ensuring that we’re investing in really developing an enhanced workplace for everybody, so that we don’t lose focus on those for whom that’s not an option,” he said.

“I think there’s an inherent risk if we just focus too much on working from home in white-collar industries.”

Ms O’Farrell said it was important that organisations with a mix of blue- and white-collar jobs were transparent that flexibility would be appropriate for each group.

“It’s about job-share and flexible working practices, and offering different benefits to people in different conditions and not being ashamed of that,” she said. “So the COVID leave is a good example.

“We said to people: if you’re actually based in Perth, and if you’re well enough to work from home, work from home. That’s not an option that your colleague who’s driving a truck for us has, so we are going to offer them different benefits.”

Benefits and rapidly increasing wages in an extraordinarily tight jobs market ever seen would be key to watch as the State reopens to the rest of the world.

PersolKelly executive general manager Kurt GIllam said some bosses were considering a permanent hybrid workforce by hiring staff overseas because there was no need for them to be in the office.

“As employers start to think more creatively around that, I think that’ll be really interesting in terms of what that does with wage pressure,” he said. “Those that have demanded higher level of salaries are now maybe getting caught out, because there’s other options for employers.

“So I think that’ll be real. I don’t know how that’s going to play out.”

Activ Foundation chief executive Michael Heath said fewer than half of people with a disability in working age were employed, which could help address skills shortages.

“If ever there was a good time to challenge that, now’s the time given that so many people are working from home … we would love to see people embracing more people in that category,” he said.

Ms Shaw said ESG considerations were also featuring much more heavily in employee considerations than ever before.

“What are the kind of organisations that people want to identify with and be associated with from a brand perspective?” she said “What makes them feel proud to work for an organisation and to extend their loyalty?”