It’s becoming increasingly accepted wisdom that a new work culture is emerging in Australia, and that it’s here to stay. I refer to studies such as a recent Deloitte report that predicted flexible work options enabled by NBN technologies could create 25,000 additional jobs by 2020.
One of the papers given at our national convention in August was by Cisco’s Martin Stewart-Weeks, an authority on flexible work, or telework as it’s sometimes called. He noted that the impact of fast broadband technology is eroding the idea of the ‘office’ as central to the generation of work. What we are increasingly witnessing in its place, he said, is the rise of new forms of flexible or ‘smart’ work, and he alluded to companies such as the Commonwealth Bank and Macquarie Bank that have moved many employees into newly designed ‘activity-based workplaces’ that do not include a designated workstation for all staff. This development has spawned yet another abbreviation: ABWs.
According to Stewart-Weeks, ABWs combine new technologies with more openplan layouts that encourage collaborative, flexible and modular work patterns. The expectation is that they will boost employee engagement and downplay hierarchies, though his prediction does not envisage the overnight demise of contests for the corner office. His paper added that the impact of ABWs will enable the participation of groups of people who might otherwise be unable to find and keep jobs, such as parents returning to work, people with disabilities and those from rural locations.
Implied in this scenario is the inexorable movement towards a workforce that does not uniformly characterise a “day at work” as a day at a particular office or industrial location. Many workers will instead come in to a central office now and then, but otherwise perform their work at a place and time that suits them. That might mean working at a home office or at the hubs or smart work spaces that are becoming increasingly accessible. Some HR practitioners I speak with see the productivity benefits that might transpire from a workforce that spends less time commuting and more time and energy on the task. There are also potential real estate savings for employers whose workforce is routinely dispersed or working from home offices.
That said, there are also employers such as Google, Yahoo and Hewlett Packard that want their employees in line of sight at the office each day. And there are others who simply want to wait and see how the actual benefits of fast broadband scrub up when the promised facilities are more widely available. There are also those who are not confident of their management capabilities with respect to off-site workers or who express caution arising from the 2011 Telstra case, in which the telco was found liable for costs incurred by a Queensland employee injured while working formally from home.
At the time of that case, around 750,000 Australians worked at least a couple of days a week from home, and reports are that number has grown considerably since. Telstra can no doubt afford the ongoing compensation costs of the injured worker’s medical expenses and lost income into the future, but such a prospect gives other employers pause for thought. The solution might be as simple as assessing a worker’s home environment for risk and making adjustments if required, but it is still an exercise that prompts the merits of a cost-benefit analysis.
The fact remains that many employees like the flexibility offered by telework, and the pressure on HR practitioners and line managers to accede will be supported by the flexibility provisions in the Fair Work Act. AHRI is an active sponsor of Telework Week in November and is keen to explore the opportunities and challenges implied in teleworking. At present that involves being engaged in the conversation, and early next year it will take the form of a survey of member perspectives.
In the interim, I would be interested in your thoughts on this workplace development.
Lyn Goodear is the chief executive officer of the Australian Human Resources Institute