A new report from ELMO Software has revealed that over a third of Aussie employees will cut down on remote work in favour of the office in the coming year. What can HR do to create workplaces worth coming back to?
The report, based on interviews with over 1000 employees across Australia, found that 36 per cent of employees were likely to work from the office more frequently in 2023 than they did last year (see graph below for a full breakdown).
Chart 1 – How likely are you to work from the office more frequently in 2023 than you did in 2022?
Meanwhile, the number of employees who said they would work from the office on a part-time basis rather than full-time fell by eight per cent compared to the last quarter of 2021.
Although employees seem to have greater interest in office life than they did this time last year, Danny Lessem, co-founder and CEO of ELMO, says this trend doesn’t necessarily mean employers can expect a return to pre-pandemic ‘business as usual’.
“We’ve moved on from full-time in the office, five days a week, across every industry. We have some very effective technology [for remote workers] now, so, where possible, there’s an expectation from employees that there will be some degree of flexibility,” he says.
“However, there are major opportunities and advantages [associated with] being in the workplace, and employees are starting to come to that realisation more and more.”
The Great Realisation
According to ELMO’s research, one of the key factors influencing employee decision-making this year is the looming threat of economic instability.
The Index found that four in five Australian employees (81 per cent) were concerned about a recession in Australia this year, and that this prospect was encouraging workers to stay in their current jobs or seek a different role in their current organisation rather than elsewhere (16 per cent of employees said they planned to seek a new job internally this year).
Lessem points to these findings as evidence that the ‘Great Resignation’ has finally passed and that the uncertainty facing the Australian economy has heralded a new era: ‘The Great Realisation’.
“There are major opportunities and advantages [associated with] being in the workplace, and employees are starting to come to that realisation more and more.” – Danny Lessem, co-founder and CEO of ELMO
“The Great Realisation is a journey back to the norm in terms of how employees see their relationship with the workplace,” he says.
“With the [threat] of recession, there’s a lot more insecurity in their tenure, and they’re less likely to look for new roles. So it’s realising the economic realities and then taking a more balanced view in terms of career progression, and in terms of their relationship with their current employers.”
While economic concerns are weighing on the minds of employees, this has not tempered their ambition for promotions and/or pay increases – the proportion of employees expecting one or both this year has risen eight per cent since 2021.
“There is still a real shortage of skills as a result of the pandemic border closures, etc.,” says Lessem.
“But [a lot of] employers don’t want to increase their headcount, and there may be employment freezes, so they’ll be looking for people who can be more impactful on their deliverables from within their existing cohort of employees. And that’s a real opportunity for people to step up and get the development and the financial outcomes they want with their existing employer.”
Employees’ ambitions to move up the ranks this year is a key driver of their desire to work from the office more frequently, particularly if they are at an early stage of their career and wish to learn from in-person interactions with senior staff.
Employees are looking for the four Cs
While some leaders might breathe a sigh of relief upon hearing the news that workers are returning to the office of their own accord, they cannot expect employees to be fully satisfied with the pre-pandemic brand of office life.
Worker preferences and priorities have shifted enormously in recent years, and it’s crucial that organisations and their cultures adapt accordingly.
Based on the findings from ELMO’s report, Lessem highlights the four most crucial priorities for employees in the coming year, and what HR can do to fulfil their expectations.
After close to three years of on-and-off isolation, employees are demonstrating a thirst for human connection.
“Based on financial figures that came up recently, we saw that a lot of people spent more money on eating out in January. People are out and about, they’re connecting, and they want that connection in the workplace, too.
“So you can’t create an office environment that stymies connection,” says Lessem, offering the example of old-style offices with dividers around each desk.
By creating more opportunities for connection, such as via social events and open-plan workspaces, managers can ensure employees are getting what they came for. Lessem points out that the cost and inconvenience of commuting needs to be offset by the benefits of coming into the office, and employees will likely favour WFH arrangements if they are not experiencing enough connection at work.
Organisational culture is always high up on HR’s agenda, and will become all the more important as employees drift back into the workplace, says Lessem.
“It’s really important that HR ensures there’s a great culture in the office, one that considers not only diversity [of people], but also encourages diversity of thought and interactions.”
As social beings, he says, people have an inherent desire to be part of a culture – and this is especially true of younger generations. ELMO’s report showed that Generation Z were the most likely of all age groups to work from the office more this year (43 per cent said that they would, compared to 39 per cent of Millennials and 21 per cent of Baby Boomers.)
Read HRM’s article ‘Does culture still exist in a hybrid world?’
It’s no surprise that the desire for easier collaboration is one of the key factors pushing employees away from remote work. Many workers are fatigued by communicating via endless video calls and emails and are keen for more dynamic collaboration sessions.
However, our dependence on technology to communicate during the pandemic might mean that employees are out of the habit of collaborating effectively in person. In these cases, employers should consider how they can step in and help, says Lessem.
“Formal frameworks can be created to foster a sense of combined working, such as stand-ups at the beginning of the week, or activities that require collaboration – for example, a big thing for tech companies is to have ‘hackathons’ where people are working together across different [disciplines],” he says.
“But you have to not only give people permission to talk to people and collaborate with them, you need to reward it as well. It comes back to that point about a team culture – if you can inculcate that, I think everyone’s a winner.”
4. Career Development
According to Lessem, there is a backlog of halted career progression during COVID-19 that still needs to be cleared, particularly for early-career workers.
“Professional development was pretty much stymied – people didn’t get to conferences, they didn’t get [in-person] mentoring or one-to-ones, so their informal career development sort of got put on hold,” he says.
“Now, career development is a big driver to get your younger folk back into the offices.”
He points to simple steps HR can take to provide informal development opportunities for younger employees, such as assigning them a mentor or having them shadow a senior.
Read HRM’s article about offering ‘squiggly’ career progression opportunities.
By focusing on the four Cs, says Lessem, HR can help ensure they are putting themselves in the best possible position to help talent thrive during difficult times.
“The way employees are engaging with the workplace is changing: changing sentiments, changing expectations and a changing macroeconomic backdrop. But with this change comes opportunity for HR practitioners, to sense the change, work with it and meet some of the expectations of the various age groups.
“If they can do that, I think they can have a happier, more productive workplace.”
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