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The things you may not have thought about when making WFH permanent!

Remote working from home as a flexible work arrangement was the exception rather than the norm for many office based workplaces pre – COVID-19. It’s now the default arrangement with restrictions focused on physical distancing and staying safe from the risk of exposure and transmission of COVID-19, with a potential second wave and further lockdowns imminent.

The anticipated drop in worker productivity on entering into lockdown following the announcement of the global pandemic did not eventuate – at least not across the board. The default work from home arrangement has had many benefits for businesses and workers, including innovative ways developed for connecting and communicating with team members and clients and enhanced use of technology resources in work product. That said, the difference between it being “possible” to work from home versus it being “effective” to work from home can be stark.

WFH started off well for most

WFH arrangements seemed to work well for most non-essential businesses where workers were able to work from home. The perceived benefits for workers associated with the WFH arrangements (focused attention on work without other usual office related distractions and no travel commute which provided more time for exercise, walking the dog, doing a load of washing, helping kids with homework etc) continued for most stay at home workers through to the time at which restrictions started to ease and there were positive signs of a return to normal (or at least – a new normal).

Lengthier WFH arrangements imminent

In some cases, there were soft starts with trials of teams working in the office. However, the recent surge in positive COVID cases, particularly in Victoria, means that the WFH gig is going to be a default position for a longer, indeterminate period. This may dishearten and concern some workers who feel isolated and disconnected from the team and business. Working in silos as a team of individuals works fine for a while but transformative progress requires a cohesive and collaborative approach by all team members. This can be difficult to achieve where workers are dispersed and working remotely and requires a coordinated plan to make it work.

What you should be thinking about

The things that you may NOT have considered though may take on greater importance in due course which may not be quite what you wished for!

  1. New facilities costs for business. Some businesses have been able to negotiate reduced brick and mortar rent payments, whilst others have been paying for near empty offices. However, businesses are incurring technology infrastructure costs and work related expense claims associated with workers working remotely. Although the current crop are happy to WFH, not providing a new employee with a place of work is highly likely in the future to lead to contract negotiations for power, internet, office furniture and potentially even water. WFH employment costs will become part of the employment contract negotiation in the future.
  2. Measurement of work and pay for performance. The need to harness ongoing productivity and performance where staff are disconnected and isolated. There was an appetite for productivity when we all entered lockdown. Business needs to keep the productivity momentum going. When performance levels taper or drop, how will business managers address performance issues from afar? Managers need to be effective in communications about productivity and performance expectations, and the requirements for closing any gaps. We can see questions coming thick and fast in 6 months’ time about how to measure work in order to both incentivise, and discipline, employees.
  3. It’s easier to make employees redundant under a WFH arrangement. Out of line of visual sight makes communicating the message easier to convey. The manager doesn’t have to see the affected worker in person everyday which can be an uneasy experience for both parties. Workers don’t visually see one another in work mode. They often don’t know what other team members are doing work-wise at any given time or over what time period. The perception of being on track for a pay rise or promotion may differ in the eyes of the worker compared to their manager, where they are disconnected and not working in the same location. It’s easier to see someone in the office and have a quick chat than to set aside a time to call to discuss progress against targets.
  4. Managing conflict is going to get harder. It’s more difficult to manage conflict situations between a manager and their direct report, or inappropriate worker behaviour or conduct (eg bullying), where the interactions take place in a remote work situation and are not observed (or corroborated) by others. Presence in the office provides a healthy dose of sunlight on all interpersonal relationships, whereas the chances of miscommunication, 1-on-1 situations and unverifiable incidents is likely to go through the roof!

These challenges call for planning to ensure adequate and regular communication with workers so that any complaints or grievances can be raised, investigated and resolved to minimise risk exposure.

This is a guest post by:

Gina Capasso
Principal Solicitor | Workplace Relations & Safety
KHQ Lawyers