While mass adoption of remote-first work models did not happen, most employers have embraced hybrid models, offering a mix of in-office work and work-from-home arrangements to employees.
What mix is the right one?
Most managers admit that this is a work in progress. Decisions about how employees can work remotely while maintaining productivity continue to be adjusted on the fly.
Apart from providing dopamine hits, this start-up-like approach to workforce planning has serious consequences for teams and their leaders.
Let me reveal Australia’s most recent working-from-home trends to help your team navigate this experiment with success.
Remote Workers Are Being Forced To Return To The Office.
More business leaders are voicing the idea that remote and hybrid work are failed experiments.
Above: Remote-only arrangements have decreased in popularity, but hybrid work is staying strong.
These major US companies have made headlines since July 2023 for their decision to backtrack on a remote-work model:
- Financial services firms. JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs have mandated on-site work five days a week for most employees. In 2023, BlackRock increased its requirement for staff to work in the office from three days (initiated in 2021) to four days.
- Large tech companies. Meta, Apple, Amazon, IBM, Salesforce, Google, and Lyft changed their remote-work policies to require most staff to be on-site for at least three days a week. Under Elon Musk’s leadership in 2023, Twitter employees have been told to show up at the office, or else.
For instance, thousands of Amazon employees petitioned against a return to office but were ignored.
What’s The Return-To-Office Situation In Australia?
In Australia, around half of the working population works remotely sometimes, but the number of people who worked from home ‘most of the time’ tripled during the pandemic and remained higher up to 2022.
A survey by recruiter Robert Half from August this year found most Australian employers have increased the number of days their teams need to spend in-office.
The most common is a hybrid approach of four days in-office and one day working remotely (28%), but not by a long margin. Three days in-office is close behind (26%).
Flexibility Rights Are Changing In Remote Employees’ Favour.
In a specific post-Covid edict, Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman advised that employers can ask employees to return to the workplace, as long as no enforceable government direction prohibits it.
To stay within the law, employers must be able to:
- Justify major changes that affect working conditions.
- Make a genuine effort to communicate and respond to employee concerns before taking action.
- Limit the adverse effects of changes.
A decision by the Commonwealth Bank to renege on its remote-work arrangements — requiring staff to return to the office at least 50% of the time from July 2023 — resulted in a union challenge to the Fair Work Commission.
Many employees have the right to request flexible working arrangements, including working from home, job sharing or reduced hours.
New regulations that came into effect in June 2023 mean employees can lodge a dispute if you, as an employer, refuse their request without showing how increased flexibility will cause a negative business impact.
Valid reasons for an employer refusing arrangements for flexible work can include:
- Increased business costs to enable arrangements.
- Lack of capacity or practicality to accommodate the request.
- Likely reduction in inefficiency or productivity.
- An expected negative impact on customer service.
Internet privacy matters, especially in hybrid work setups. Hackers can steal employees’ passwords and log into your company’s CRM, ERP and HR systems. Prevent data breaches by encouraging your team to use a premium Australian VPN.
Demand For Flexibility Hasn’t Wavered, Increasing Turnover Risk.
A McKinsey report from 2022 finds that 87% of people take up the option to work flexibly when it’s available — across all demographics, occupations and geographies.
Above: Accessing flexible working arrangements was also cited as the third most common motivator for switching jobs.
Closer to home, insights from a fortnightly survey of Australians’ attitudes jointly conducted by Melbourne Institute and Roy Morgan revealed that, in 2023, 40% of workers desire to spend more time working from home than their employer permits.
That’s based on the responses of more than 4,500 working Australians who have the ability to perform working tasks at home.
There’s a significant gap — and an obvious tension — between employees’ preferences and bosses’ willingness to empower remote work.
The Danger Of Blindly Trusting Survey Data.
Survey results are clear – most employees prefer hybrid or remote work. But employee preferences and commercial realities are not always aligned.
For example, measuring employee sentiment for the following dimensions is likely to elicit a lot of support, but is unlikely to result in strategies that help the CEO survive the next AGM:
- I’d like to work a 25-hour week.
- I’d like to get paid 2X more.
- I’d like to bring my kids to work.
- I’d like to participate in 50% less meetings.
To make good decisions we need a more sophisticated level of analysis than the reflexive, survey-driven op-eds that mainstream media currently offers.
Why Some Employers Are Not Giving In To Flexibility.
Don’t fall in the trap of thinking that all resistance to flex work is unjustified.
Too many journalists and “futurists” have straw manned the idea that “dinosaur” bosses insist on attendance in “obsolete” offices as control mechanism that has roots in poor management skills.
Since the beginning of 2023, at least fifteen senior business leaders have confided in me that they’re noticing a strong negative correlation between a hire’s thirst for flex work and their on-the-job performance.
Not Everyone Wants To Work From Home.
Concurrently, a lot of people have voiced to me their strong preference for returning to the office.
In fact, they only want to work from the office, as they view it as an opportunity to get maximum exposure to mentors and peers.
Computer-Based Work Remains Best-Fit, But Remote Work Is Expanding In Variety.
Knowledge work that can be performed digitally from behind a desk (have you invested in a standing desk yet?) is an obvious fit for working-from-home arrangements.
Surprisingly, companies from unlikely sectors have embraced hybrid work.
A global survey of senior leaders from more than 530 companies by KPMG in 2022 found 89% of companies either had introduced or were considering introducing a remote working policy —including unexpected sectors like food and drink, retail and manufacturing.
For example, some manufacturers were considering remote work arrangements for specific business units, such as:
- Implementing video calls instead of in-person meetings.
- Embracing virtual reality tech for sales calls.
Between 2021 and 2022, the FlexJobs online job board saw a 20% increase in remote job listings, with an increasing variety of professions and industries open to a remote workforce.
Computer-based and professional services industries dominate, but there’s a surprisingly high number of remote opportunities in the health field, and the non-profit remote roles also increased significantly.
The top sectors and positions where employees work remotely include:
- Information technology, including support and project management, software development and engineering, cybersecurity, computer repair and website maintenance.
- Back-office functions, including marketing, accounting, finance, project management, HR and recruiting, communications and legal.
- Medical and health jobs, and especially support personnel involved in handling medical records, analysis, billing, insurance claims, research, and patient customer service.
- Customer service reps, responsible for managing omnichannel communications to address customer’s concerns and questions.
Employers Are Redesigning HR Initiatives For The Home Office.
Employers who are embracing hybrid work are:
- Investing in tools and platforms that increase digital engagement opportunities.
- Providing WFH budgets to help employees buy a better office chair or join their local gym.
- Increasing communication levels, feedback loops and virtual networking.
- Updating reward and recognition programs to make people feel connected and improve job satisfaction.
- Retraining managers to better manage workloads and spot burnout across remote teams.
(Related: How To Meet Your Duty Of Care For Hybrid Workers).
How Should Leaders Respond To Working-From-Home Trends In 2023?
We’re in the middle of an experiment.
Fast feedback loops, plenty of networking opportunities and the ability to simmer in the company’s culture are essential for productivity, they say.
Which opinion is right?
Mainly your company’s short, medium and long-term goals, as well as the sector it operates in. But it also depends on your people, the culture you’ve built and the competition that you’re up against.
You’ll probably have to create a custom hybrid work strategy that leverages the best of both worlds, and continue to adjust. Just don’t listen to absolutists who think the world is eithe black or white.