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Productivity with flexibility: the ‘silver lining’ of the new workplace

In this year like no other, adaptability has been critical to business survival. The unprecedented embrace of flexible work by many organisations in the face of the pandemic has spurred a widespread acceptance that things can and should be done differently. 

It is becoming increasingly likely that working from home will be the ‘new normal’ for many beyond COVID-19. But for workplace flexibility to be sustainable in the long term, employers must anticipate, not just navigate, the potential issues that lie ahead.

The data emerging in Australia and internationally about the productivity benefits of working from home is positive, if not compelling. McKinsey & Co research indicates 80% of people enjoy working from home, 41% claim to be more productive and 28% claim to be as productive. 

Meanwhile, a survey by two Australian academics of 6,000 Australian public servants in June and July 2020 revealed that only 8.4% of managers rated their teams less productive, with the balance rating their teams as operating at either the same or higher productivity than before. A Harvard Business School study found that working from home has given American workers the (apparently not contradictory) combination of higher job satisfaction and longer working hours.

The acceptance of ‘working from home’ is starting to permeate our legal and employment framework. In August 2020, Fair Work Commission President Iain Ross released a statement described as ‘a starting point for discussions between parties’ on work-from-home arrangements in the COVID-19 era. The statement noted that most modern awards incorporated no working from home or telework provisions prior to the COVID-19 crisis, and proposed wide ranging amendments to awards that would, for example, permit employees to work from home, work the same number of hours over less days, share reduced hours over a team and take double leave at half pay. Many of these proposed changes echo the temporary changes made to certain modern awards earlier in the crisis. 

The changes that support the recovery will likely be permanent pillars of a modern workplace with estimates that up to 30% (or four million) workers can work from home. This is great news for workers whose roles are typically autonomous or computer-based (including professional services, managerial or clerical workers), those with previously lengthy commutes or who live in remote areas and those with caring responsibilities. But that is not to say everyone can or has benefitted. There are mixed feelings about those lucky enough to have the option. Many with caring responsibilities have struggled with school and childcare closures forcing them to be all things to all people including worker, carer and teacher. Many long for human interaction and thrive off the energy of others. Nonetheless, if productivity levels remain high, the entrenchment of working from home as an option to embrace also presents cost savings and benefits for employers.

For every silver lining, however, there remain clouds. For flexible work and working at home to sustain the productivity claims, employers need to not only navigate, but anticipate, the turbulence ahead. Four key issues employers should consider are:

1. Workplace health and safety. Working from home raises its physical challenges – for example, anecdotal evidence indicates that chiropractors and dentists are seeing a surge in patients with cracked teeth (from stressed grinding) and cracking backs (from poor ergonomics) – but the greatest challenge is that of mental health. 

Working from home can be isolating, and working from home when in isolation can be overwhelming. So many aspects of this crisis can increase the stress and anxiety felt by employees – the unprecedented Government-enforced isolation and varied approach across states, the anxiety about health and the health of family and friends, the precarious economic environment – not to mention the simple fear of the unknown. To combat this, employers should consider:

  • organising employee training sessions on the health and safety challenges of working from home;

  • checking in with employees regularly;

  • providing, subsidising or reimbursing the cost of certain equipment (such as ergonomically safe seating);

  • fostering an environment where employees can openly raise concerns about working from home and respond to such concerns; and

  • being alive to risks almost entirely unique to working from home (most obviously, the threat of domestic violence). 

2. Underpayments. After a COVID-induced hiatus, issues of employee underpayments (pejoratively referred to as ‘wage theft’) returns as the defining workplace governance and compliance challenge of 2020. The Fair Work Ombudsman has highlighted ‘[l]arge corporate underpayments’ as a priority issue for 2020-21, and while there may be additional regulator flexibility for already struggling industries, there will not be for everyone else. The temptation to put aside the keeping of proper records will not be an answer. Employers must carefully consider how they track hours of work and implement systems (which may include self-reporting) to enable the accurate recording of time worked, including overtime. 

3. Confidentiality. Most employers’ confidentiality protocols are tailored to all employees working from a single place. Employers should consider whether they need to update their confidentiality policies, their cybersecurity policies and their software / hardware to ensure that their commercially sensitive information remains protected in the world of a dispersed workforce. They must remain mindful, however, not to cross the line of invasive digital surveillance technologies which are threatening employees’ privacy.

4. Protecting personal information. A dispersed workforce also raises data security issues, particularly where parts of the workforce may be collecting or handling repositories of personal information, including sensitive information, from a remote location. Those organisations that are subject to the Australian Privacy Principles (APP Entities) are required to take such steps to protect personal information from, amongst other matters, misuse, loss and unauthorised access. APP Entities are also required to take such steps to destroy or de-identify personal information where it is no longer needed for the original purpose of collection. Employers should ensure they have implemented policies and procedures for managing and guiding their workforce through the organisation’s ICT and physical security requirements for handling and storing documentation to ensure it is discharging privacy law obligations and minimising the risk of off-site data breaches.

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As it becomes increasingly likely that working from home will become the new normal for many, the common expectation is that employers will be responsive and accommodating. The success or failure of working from home within each organisation will largely be determined by investing in a framework that supports engagement and trust. Regardless of what’s over the horizon, working flexibly is a long-term play.


This article is part of our publication Continuity Through Crises: Perspectives on business risk, resilience and recovery in uncertain times. Read more here.


Authors

John Casey

Overseas Legal Adviser


Tags

Employment and Labour Technology, Media and Telecommunications

This publication is introductory in nature. Its content is current at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. You should always obtain legal advice based on your specific circumstances before taking any action relating to matters covered by this publication. Some information may have been obtained from external sources, and we cannot guarantee the accuracy or currency of any such information.