With work-life balance lines blurred since lockdown, a NZ Business Leaders’ new mental wellbeing report warns of ‘toxic’ overwork. But getting employees back to work is challenging.

I have a friend. She lives more than an hour’s commute each way on two buses from the Auckland office of the international corporate she works for. Since the first Covid lockdown she has been working from home. She really likes it. More time with her kids, her partner; way less time travelling. 

But times change. Lockdowns end. Her bosses want staff back in the office, so she’s negotiating her return to work. She wants to work from home three days a week, or more. The company wants her to work from home two days a week, or less.

Pre-Covid, there would have been no discussion. She’d have gone to the office.

But now… it’s complicated. It’s negotiable. 

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One of the biggest changes, particularly for employers, in the post-Covid way of working is everything is going to be so individual, so case-by-case, says Bryan Froud, workplace specialist with commercial real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL).

“Hyper-personalised” is the way Froud describes it. Whether someone wants to work from home, or from the office, or a mixture of the two won’t be a question of seniority or gender or demographics, or which part of the company they work for (for example human resources departments were traditionally more flexible than, say, IT). 

Instead it’ll be about your particular circumstances: how far from the office you live, whether you have children and how old they are, if you have flatmates, a home office or a shared dining table, a backyard or at least some sunlight. It’ll depend on what sort of personality you have and what you are working on.

Working from home or from the office has become “hyper-personalised” since the first Covid lockdown, experts say. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

It could change from week to week or even day to day. And that will be hard for some companies. Particularly traditional companies.

In February, the BBC quoted David Solomon, chief executive of investment bank Goldman Sachs, calling working from home an “aberration” that must be corrected “as soon as possible” – by staff getting back to the office.

Solomon later dialled back his horror of the “new normal”,  after a meeting with outside consultants “to gain insights and recommendations”, according to a Forbes article quoting Wall Street chronicler Charlie Gasparino. One of those recommendations was something along the lines of “maybe you should ask your staff”, the article said. Goldman Sachs has since conducted a survey of its 38,000 employees.

Solomon’s attitude may seem naively un-PC in these times of work-life balance – not to mention rampant Covid in many parts of the world. But there’s logic to his arguments. 

“For a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative, apprenticeship culture, [work from home] is not ideal,” he told a news conference.

On average people in the US were working 48 minutes longer each day during the lockdown and the number of meetings was up 13 percent.

The bank employs 3,000 new recruits every year, and these mostly young people couldn’t get the “direct mentorship” they normally receive if a lot of the people above them are working from home, he said. 

The heads of other big international financial companies have made similar statements. JP Morgan’s chief executive Jamie Dimon said working from home had a negative effect on productivity. 

And the dilemma is shared by many companies, including big professional services businesses – accountancy firms, engineering consulting practices, big law firms – in New Zealand as well as overseas. They all rely on a big annual influx of graduates who do the donkey work in hierarchical teams, learning the ropes as they do it. 

Even where your company is taking on smaller number of staff, it’s hard to get people up to speed if they, and the people above them, aren’t around.

NZ Post group property and procurement manager Greg Morris says the company inducted a few new employees the week before Covid sent everyone home – and it wasn’t ideal.

“You can’t give people a feel for the company if you aren’t in the office.”

Space saving

On the other hand, who would complain about being able to reduce the amount of office space your business needs – by as much as 20-40 percent in some cases – while at the same time winning the gratitude of your staff for your flexibility and care for their wellbeing?

Tech giants like Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter have all announced they will allow staff to continue to work from home indefinitely, although working remotely 100 percent of the time will require permission from a manager.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said hiring 100 percent-from-home staff could also mean being able to pay people less because they live in areas with a lower cost of living. 

Lizzie Champion is having to think creatively to get some staff back to the GSK offices. Photo: Nikki Mandow

Lizzie Champion is general manager of drug company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) NZ. Pre-Covid, she had been under some pressure from her international bosses to reduce her desk:staff ratio to 60 percent. That is, to have enough office space to handle 60 percent of staff being at work at any one time.

The problem was that at the time, in 2019, an average of 82 percent of staff were in the office at any one time. Sometimes it was more. Champion wasn’t sure how she was going to tell people to stay home.

Covid solved that problem. Now around 30 percent of staff choose to come to work on any given day; a big day is 40 percent. GSK moved its New Zealand headquarters to a cool co-working space in the Generator building in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter.

Keeping the culture alive

But now there are other problems to solve – most importantly how to promote a company culture and a collaborative feel when more than half the staff are working remotely. Champion feels a bit like a pioneer in this space because New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world where it was safe to let people back into the office. There’s no international lead to follow.

“In New Zealand we are living the new normal.” 

The company decided to keep the flexibility employees had last year and did not mandate people coming into the office for a certain number of days a week; Champion says the staff welcome that. “We truly believe this is how to build employee loyalty to the company.”

“But my fear is how do we keep the team culture alive? We were a tightly-knit team.”

Instead, one of her new jobs is planning ways to encourage people back into the office. A pilates class and a fortnightly shared lunch are some thoughts so far. “How are we going to maintain our connection? I don’t know yet.”

Greg Morris is welcoming staff back into the office – but not all at the same time. Photo: Supplied

At NZ Post, Morris says the company has also decided against having a formal policy on working from home – for the time being at least.

“It’s about thinking, what’s the office for? About teams consciously thinking about connecting, about those softer aspects.”

But other companies have started asking people to come back to work, at least part time. Deloitte partner Sonya Breeze says a lot of the clients the consultancy company deals with are opting for staff to be in the office two or three days a week, so teams can get together when necessary.

Even that’s not simple. Getting all members of one team to agree to which days they will be in is far from easy, one corporate executive told Newsroom. Too many people wanted to be at home on Mondays and Fridays and the office was bursting midweek. Eventually the heads of different teams just had to lay down the law. 

Auckland Council has been grappling with balancing flexible working with keeping teams connected, says GM people and culture Bronwyn Hall. The recently-introduced 3-2-1 rule, as some employees call it, sees staff encouraged to be in the office three days a week, potentially at home two, but with one of the office days being a team day.

“For those who choose to work at home or at another location on the other two days, they first need to ensure this is suitable for the role they are in and the work they do, the rest of their team and their customers,” Hall says. “For those who require greater flexibility, this is still enabled.” 

Hall said the council hadn’t had “notable push-back”, although some staff who spoke to Newsroom felt they had limited choice about the three days in the office. 

Meanwhile, one bank worker told Newsroom staff suspected their employer was monitoring people’s swipe card access to the building to make sure they were spending the prescribed amount of time in the office. Very old school.

NZ Post’s Morris says he would like to see people spending at least some time in the office. On the other hand “if everyone turned up on the same day we’d be stuffed”.

Morris reckons NZ Post will probably settle down to needing six desks for every 10 people.

As for the death of office culture, now so many people are working from home? That’s rubbish, he says.

“If you are a dumb organisation that’s going to happen. If you are smart, you will differentiate your brand as an employer. Good organisations are more actively focused on their culture than they were pre-Covid.”

Bryan Froud presented at JLL’s ‘Future Cities’ events last month. Photo: Supplied

JLL’s Bryan Froud says 2021 is going to be time for companies to test the new normal in their own workplaces. The notion of employee wellbeing will be important, but that will be as personalised as people’s work-from-home/go-to-the-office choice.

For some people, wellbeing will be the chance to go to the office to escape the newborn at home, for others the opportunity to socialise with colleagues. Some companies will entice workers back with food, or with classes – meditation or yoga, for example. Still other workers will welcome the opportunity to be part of a higher social purpose.

“Companies could look at providing spaces and services which have a social purpose.”

Overall, companies are likely to find they need less office space, Froud says, but 50 percent fewer people isn’t necessarily going to equal 50 percent less space.

“If you have half as many people coming in, you might look at a 30 percent reduction in space.”

Instead of most of the office space being for individual desks, with a small amount of collaborative space (meeting rooms, places to work together, social areas, quiet spaces) the ratio will switch.

Again it won’t be easy. Your company’s lease might not be up for years if you want to downsize, and big changes to your existing space might not come cheap. 

Trust – and overwork

One of the more gnarly issues of the office/home work scenario has been around trust, says GlaxoSmithKline’s Lizzie Champion.

And as flexible working continues, that’s something companies will still be working on.

“We’ve been on a bit of a journey to embed trusting relationships,” Champion says.

While early on it may have been managers wondering if their staff would do as much work with all the distractions of home as they did in the office, later the opposite problems arose.

“Employees felt at points a lack of trust and that they had to prove themselves,” Champion says. “So they spent more time in front of their laptops.” 

Sometimes too much time.

A Harvard/NYU study released in August last year found on average people in the US were working 48 minutes longer each day during the lockdown and the number of meetings was up 13 percent.

Some of that is people working when they would otherwise have been commuting, but some is people simply carrying on sitting at their home desk, when in an office environment they would pack up and go home.

Overwork is one of the biggest harm factors in “toxic work”, according to a new mental wellbeing report from the NZ Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum. 

Moving from measuring work done by the hour or segments thereof to looking at outputs has been tough for some professional services firms, like law practice MinterEllisonRuddWatts, and often for their clients, says corporate and commercial partner Silvana Schenone.

“You can’t lead by controlling, you have to trust,” says Silvana Schenone. Photo: Nikki Mandow

Almost as hard, psychologically, has been changing the way oversight happens at the firm to one that suits more remote – and therefore more independent – working by the more junior members of a team. 

“You can’t lead by controlling, you have to trust,” Schenone says. “You need to stop planning everything, you need to experiment. You need to trust people to get where they need to go.”

The Deloitte Human Capital Trends report calls it “capitalising on worker agency and choice” and says it benefits the organisation, not just the employee.

“Giving workers more control over what work they do and what learning experiences to pursue can increase their engagement because it allows them to focus their efforts on things that truly matter to them.” 

But no one says it’s easy.

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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