As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in earnest in Australia in March of this year, business owners were swift to act (especially the law firms, no surprises there!). Cleaning and hygiene efforts were amped up, social distancing measures enforced and office workers sent to log in from home.
As ordinarily desk-bound employees descended on unprepared households, makeshift ‘offices’ popped up overnight. A local Sydney-based stage manufacturer was able to pull off a massive pivot capitalising on the new market of home-based workers with pop up desks. And as the days and weeks rolled on and more and more children began home-schooling, homes that were previously empty during the day were suddenly a hive of activity.
With parents forced to retake control over the care and education of their children for most of the daylight hours, families quickly realised that something was going to have to give. To their credit, many employers were quick to adapt and allowed employees to adjust their working hours to better fit the balance they’d work out at home.
Working from home is not as easy as it sounds
Far from the perceived ‘roll out of bed and into work in your PJs’ type arrangements, many workers have spent the last 8+ weeks working bizarre hours to squeeze in their ordinary workload, and spending their usual office-bound time managing increasingly bored and restless kids.
It’s interesting to think how many working parents have been fighting for just these sorts of work arrangements for decades. So much so that the Government has been forced to legislate and keep legislating for employees to be afforded greater rights to request flexible work arrangements.
Sadly, the right to request has been largely reserved to just that – a request. Employers have been known to refuse requests, arguing that remote and flexible work just doesn’t ‘work’ for them. Employers can refuse a request for flexible work if they have a reasonable business ground and the definition is broad to say the least.
Many workers’ plights have fallen largely on the deaf ears of executives who couldn’t be bothered to actually explore the business case for remote and flexible work and instead have flatly stated it would be ‘too costly’ or ‘too impractical’. Importantly, one of the oft-stated grounds for refusal is that the new working arrangements would be likely to result in significant loss of efficiency or productivity.
But despite the temporary dip in productivity that was inevitable as everyone settled into their changed arrangements and dealt with the fear and uncertainty around the pandemic, the new ways of working have shown to be doing quite well. Even with restless little ones vying for their parents’ attention all through the day. So much so that Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, recently announced that he expects at least half its workforce will work remotely over the next 5-10 years. And they’re not the only ones.
But for the vast majority of business owners, the release of roadmaps to recovery across Australia means there is a planned return to ‘business as usual’ sooner rather than later. Buses and trains will steadily carry more and more commuters to their desk jobs, especially as most Aussie kids have filtered back into schools and day cares over the last couple of weeks.
How should we prepare for life after COVID-19?
As we emerge into our post-COVID world, business owners should be thinking seriously about what they’ve learnt from this pandemic. For some, it will be a realisation of the risk that overreliance on key clients or revenue streams poses. For others, it’ll bring home the importance of being able to change and pivot quickly. And for some (especially those with largely desk-based teams), it’ll be questioning the hitherto foregone conclusion that flexible and remote work benefits employees only.
As we emerge from the pandemic, employers need to be hyper aware of the need and desire for flexible work. The experience of this pandemic will only serve to bring home to employees the benefits such an arrangement can offer, i.e. more time with family, less time commuting and less meaningless meetings.
And in light of the success most businesses have had transitioning to a workforce based out of their homes, it’s going to be a lot more difficult for business owners to refuse such requests in future.
Certainly, it’s going to be much harder to argue that remote and flexible work results in reduced productivity or efficiency. Now is the time for future-focused business owners to be investing in systems and technologies to facilitate useful remote and flexible working arrangements for their staff into the future.
Courtney Bowie is the 2020 winner of Telstra Business Women’s Awards Emerging Leader Award (NSW), finalist in Lawyer’s Weekly 30 Under 30 as a Wellness Advocate and is a successful entrepreneur pioneering Australia’s first law firm catering solely for women in business. Her Lawyer services female entrepreneurs and small business owners across Australia to help them start, protect and grow successful businesses.