As Australia’s economy restarts, the focus has been on the ‘return to work’.

But the COVID-19 experience has not been the same for every Australian, with many continuing to work throughout the pandemic – whether in essential services, office workers or other unaffected industries.

What comes next will, and should, be different. People have adapted and enjoyed the changes to the way we work, and many don’t want to go back to the way things were. Now is the time to redesign the way we work. It’s time for a new leadership deal.

Hear from Matt Croxford, National Head of Human Capital, and Katie O’Keeffe, Partner in Human Capital, as they discuss the future employee value proposition, the workplace pitfalls to avoid, and what a new leadership deal should look like.

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Velvet-Belle Templeman

Welcome to Boardroom.Media.  My name is Velvet-Belle Templeman and I’m here talking to Matt Croxford, National Head of Human Capital, and Katie O’Keeffe, Partner in Human Capital at Grant Thornton.  Matt has expertise in executive coaching, strategy and employee engagement and Katie specialises in developing high performing leaders and teams.  Today we’ll be talking about the much-discussed return to work now that restrictions are beginning to ease and just what that looks like.

Thanks so much for joining us Matt and Katie.

Matt Croxford

Morning Velvet-Belle, good to be here.

Katie O’Keeffe

Good morning Velvet-Belle.  Thanks for having us again, it’s great to be back.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

It’s great to have you.  Now Matt, what’s your gut reaction to the return to work conversation?

Matt Croxford

Yeah, look it’s an interesting phrase isn’t it because it’s really not the same for everyone is it?  I mean I find the phrase is somewhat unrepresentative.  I mean it really depends on what your reality has been like over the last few months doesn’t it?  For instance, if you were in the tourism field or entertainment or retail these last few months have been really, really tough right, and you’re probably desperate to get back to work and earn some real money and, you know, kick start your businesses again and get customers back in, and look for the rest of us we are desperate for you to do that too.  It’s wonderful we’re seeing some of these restrictions ease this morning because, you know, just on a sidenote I’m absolutely bored to the back teeth of my own cooking, my family is as well, I’m desperate to go back to the pub for a pint and a change of scenery would be lovely too sort of thing. 

But we’ve got clients that we’re working with that have absolutely thrived during this period of time, I mean they’re telling us they’re busier than ever.  I mean we’ve got digital businesses that are absolutely booming because we’re all spending more time online than we have before.  I’ve got some legal clients that we’re doing some work with and they’re struggling under the weight of expanded scope of work that they’re working on as well as some new work at the same time. 

We do some interesting work in local government and it’s really interesting because they’re using this time to tackle some of the major capital works programs that they have and they’ve been putting off for a little while.  So, you know, the roads are quieter, the parks and community spaces are quieter so they’re doing work on parks and playgrounds and roads and maintenance on wastewater systems and things like that, so they’re busier than ever with some of those things.

So it really depends on where you are, what you’re doing at a particular moment in time.  I feel pretty confident that what comes next will be different.  It’s not going to be earth shattering for everyone but, you know, for some people it will be earth shattering, there will be some major shifts for some people, but regardless it will be different.  I personally cannot wait.  I mean I’m not going back to my old ways.  I mean there’s no way I’m spending so much time commuting.  It was so January, you know?  But to me it’s not really a return to work, it’s a really big opportunity for us to take a chance to stop, reimagine what work could be like and possibly make some significant changes for the future and hey kids you’re welcome, you know?  You look back and let’s hope you thank us for it.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

That’s a really excellent point.  As you say, many of us are still working.  And Katie, in that case what does the, let’s call it “return to the workplace”, actually mean then?

Katie O’Keeffe

Well for me I see it as a wonderful opportunity for us to redefine and redesign work and the workplace.  For me it feels like a unique point in time where we almost get to start again or start from scratch, and in the finance world there’s a method called “zero-based budgeting”, so for all our accountants listening they would be very well aware of that, and the premise with zero-based budgeting is that you break everything down to what you really need and build it up again based on demand and other factors rather than just basing your budget on history and making incremental improvements on the year before.

So if we apply that same thinking to returning to the workplace wouldn’t it be wonderful if we took this time now to really apply human-centred design thinking and consciously and deliberately plan what is the best solution for different people and different businesses, and why should we do this, why is this an opportunity?  Well I’ve had many conversations and read a lot of articles and posts with people talking about the changes that they’ve really enjoyed and concerned they don’t want to go back to the way things were. 

The number of people I’ve heard say recently, you know, I’m now worried about coming out of this phase into the next phase because I’ve adopted changes in my life that I really appreciate and I don’t want to lose those.  So I think it would be a great shame if we all just rushed back to offices and commuting and travelling and the negative consequences of all that without really considering what we need, what works, what’s good for people, what our customers and clients need, and what our families, children and communities need.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

And Katie what are some of the positives that you’re hearing from the iso working experience that people want to retain?

Katie O’Keeffe

So the conversation about positive has actually been going on for a while now.  I started thinking about it a few months ago and was inspired to put a post on LinkedIn, and even back then there was a lot of really thoughtful contribution from people about the positives that they’re hoping will be maintained.  So I’m particularly curious about the topic and from the articles I’ve been reading and the posts I’ve been reading and the conversations I’ve been having, there’s really five consistent themes coming through.

The first one is this idea that we have a genuine care and compassion for people in our lives, be that family, friends, colleagues or neighbours or others.  There’s been a real shift in focus to what’s really important to us as humans and a shift in the narrative to connection and collective care.  So we no longer ask “How are you?” as a casual way to start a conversation, it’s a real question and we’re listening for a real answer.  So that’s the first one.

The second one, and it’s quite connected to that or related to that, is this wonderful sort of acceptance that real connection is a critical ingredient to successful relationships and particularly true for leaders of organisations.  So the number of surveys showing now that people feel they’ve had more frequent and better quality connections with their leaders, they feel a stronger sense of purpose in their work and belonging with their colleagues is significant.  So I think it’s really important and I’d love to see leaders particularly thinking about how to maintain this mindset and belief that regular and genuine connection and communication with our people is really critical as we commence this new phase of working.  There’s been a lot of global recognition that maybe we don’t need so much patent business in our lives.  Matt mentioned before that everything’s slowed down a little bit.

So the third thing is this idea that it’s a time and an opportunity for us to refocus on what really matters to be successful in work and life, that long commutes to offices, interstate and international travel for meetings and conferences, complicated life logistics and planning because we’re all running around like headless chooks all the time, that maybe perhaps we don’t need those things in our lives in order to be effective and productive contributors.  It’s possible often even more effective to enable and empower people to work when and where is most suited to them.  So flexible working isn’t something to be approached with scepticism or something that’s only for people with caring responsibilities but it actually works effectively for many different people in lots of different situations and that that’s really good for business.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

So Matt, redesigning the nature of work, what are some different ways that that could look?

Matt Croxford

Yeah, look it’s a great point VB.  I mean the nature of work itself has really been put under the microscope over this last sort of few months hasn’t it?  I mean as I mentioned a little bit earlier some of the work and some of the jobs that are taking place at the moment are probably not going to change a great deal.  I mean essentially if you’re an outdoor worker the chances are that your role is probably not too different today than it was a couple of months ago, and in fact during that time you’ve probably been doing pretty much the same as what you have done for many years.  What has changed and what will be fundamentally different is things like the professions, office workers and of course knowledge workers, but that’s the nature of work.  I mean some of the clients we’re talking to they’re asking a lot of questions.  We’re all spending a lot of time of these Skype calls and Zoom calls and so on, and people are asking a lot of questions, and I have to say the nature of these questions are very much around why, you know, sort of things like why did I spend so long commuting each day, you know, time wasted as it were.  Why did I believe that I have to physically be in the office or be at my workplace to be productive?  Why didn’t I try this with my team earlier?  Why didn’t I give this or delegate this to my team before because geez they’ve really picked up the ball and run with it.  Why have I never connected with my clients and my customers like this in the past?  I mean what’s stopped me doing this kind of thing?  Why did we think it would take so long to create this change?

I mean Katie talked about home based call centres, systems being turned on, workforces being put out to work remotely in the matter of a couple of days.  And for a lot of people at least I’m hearing is this sense of why did I give so much of myself to the job, you know, without getting on my soapbox around it?  I mean, you know, most human beings work is a primary mechanism by which we make a contribution in the world and so we spend more of our waking lives at work than we do with the people that matter the most to us in our lives, well we did at least.  And now increasingly I’ve felt it’s become this very binary sort of discussion, either-or, I can have a great job and great career prospects and so on but it will come at a cost to my home life, and it’s really one or the other.

So I think to bring it to a conclusion around some of the things that I’m thinking about that we’re hearing in this space is that what COVID has done for us and some things that we actually need to be thankful for, is that we’ve communicated more frequently and more completely to all of those people that we connect with.  We’ve really had to focus on what matters, what drives real value as opposed to just busy work.  We’ve had to trust our people to get on with it, give them the space and the respect to make the decisions as to how they’re going to do that and believe that it’ll get done, in the essence of real trust in this space.  We’ve really had to connect with each other in a much more deeper and empathetic level, dare I say even human, and we’ve been able to devote more quality time to life outside of work with the people who matter to us, perhaps even getting a great more realistic level of balance, so we can be thankful for these at least.

As to redesigning the nature of work, we’ll have to see how these things pan out but I think these are the foundations, and the work that we do around organisational redesign we always start with a set of guiding principles.  I think we need to use these things that we’ve just been talking about as the essence of guiding principles to redesign organisations and I think we need to be doing that as a society at the moment.  Katie, what are you hearing?

Katie O’Keeffe

Yeah, I think the guiding principles are such a great sort of thought starter around this and if you think about the guiding principles that have driven the design of work up until today one of those guiding principles or assumptions have been that work takes place in a location with others where we’re all together, and I think what we’re seeing now is this idea that that’s actually not true, it’s an assumption that doesn’t stand up when you test it and you put people in different places and you see how it works. 

So there’s a few things that I think as a result of that we might see as becoming kind of guiding principles or redesign principles as we think about redesigning work.  I think one of those is this idea of location-less jobs, so organisations accessing talent where it lives rather than requiring it to come to the organisation, and that could actually open up global talent pools even more.  I think we’ve heard a lot about this idea of the mobile workforce which assumes that you’ve got a workforce that’s free to move around the world to go to where the work is.  I think the conversation will becoming an accessible workforce, that we’re tapping into people who previously found that I wasn’t mobile but I’m accessible, and so this could actually tap into people who previously found accessing physical work offices very challenging.  So it could make the workforce more diverse and more inclusive which would be incredibly exciting.

I think the second thing is this idea that we’ll be genuinely digital first.  Again, this digital first has been a term that’s been thrown around for such a long time but I think now we will actually approach the design of works and jobs with a digital first mindset.  So how can this be done effectively with technology, how can we reach people both as customers, employees, and how do we engage with people wherever they’re located?

I think the third thing for me is what does it mean for offices and work spaces, and I think we could see offices becoming primarily collaboration centres.  So people don’t go into an office to sit at a desk but instead they go to do team based work and that the physical locations are set up by defaults to enable digital connection with people who aren’t physically in the room.  And so it would be interesting then to see how office and retail spaces that aren’t being utilised become repurposed, and if we continue to use this sort of socially good mindset that’s really emerged during COVID-19 how might companies start to consider how their unused office space can benefit others, and how might we see then this greater sharing if that’s what happens, result in improved cross-organisation collaboration and then therefore improved innovation.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

Katie, you also mentioned that this is an opportunity for organisations to take a look at themselves and their business imperative, call me pessimistic but would this ever actually happen?

Katie O’Keeffe

Look Velvet-Belle, I think the pessimist question is a really important question to ask and, you know, I’m forever an optimist so I tend to think about it as why wouldn’t they.  For some time there’s been a push for employees to demand more from their employers, more flexibility, better balance, increased inclusion, better communication, a stronger sense of purpose and giving back to the community.  And with employees able to demand more of that if they’re not getting it then they’re able to move elsewhere, there’s greater choice as a worker in employers.  So I think the current situation will escalate the need for companies to show they are listening to their people both now and into the future, and to design their work and workplaces so that everyone benefits.

I think the companies that don’t take the time now to redefine and redesign will be left behind because people increasingly will vote with their feet, or maybe a better way to say it is with their mouse clicks, if they’re not actually physically together and head elsewhere for both work and consumption or shopping.

I do however believe that there is a risk attached to long term and large scale working from home if that’s what is maintained.  At the moment I think there’s some very unique conditions around what’s making it so successful and the global pandemic as a driver for working from home means we’re all acutely aware of a very real threat to human life, both through health, psychological and financial factors.  So we’ve approached this with a mindset that we need to be in regular contact with each other and really caring and enquiring about each other’s wellbeing.  So even though we’re more at home we’re in more regular contact and the contact is genuinely caring and empathetic.

I’m a little bit worried that as the threat from the pandemic diminishes and the world begins to return to a regular rhythm and cadence and as everything starts to speed up again, because that’s how it will feel, it will feel like it gets faster again, there’s a risk that the impetus and mindset for staying connected and caring will also diminish.  And so that if we’re all working from home extensively and we lose this mindset of care for each other, that there’s a very real risk then that our workforces will begin to feel increasingly disconnected and isolated, that managers will lose touch with their people and what they’re working on, and this will drive an over-correction back to well we just have to all be together in the same place for work to be effective and productive.  So I really believe it’s essential that if we maintain flexibility for people to be working wherever and whenever they want to that we also maintain this mindset of connection and care for our people. 

Matt, you and I were talking about this earlier and you had some very interesting related observations about physical workspace design and implications for landlords.

Matt Croxford

Yeah, look I mean can you imagine being a commercial landlord at the moment?  I mean how tough would that be?  It’s been a tough few years in that space and it’s going to continue to be so.  I mean, look, we fundamentally redesigned the way office space looks and feels over the last 10 years or so, I mean we’ve got flexible working, hot desking, collaboration zones and so on, I mean no one’s in offices any more, it’s rare to have such a thing.  And I think, look, for me it’s really interesting because I have this sort of sense that if you take away a sense of base, a sense of home, even for a few hours a day, you take that away from someone, you know, come into the office, here’s your locker, choose a desk to sit at, you take away a sense of permanence, albeit for a short period of time, I just wonder what the impact that has on an individual’s motivation and connection to the organisation? 

I mean, look, many organisations themselves have really exacerbated this.  I mean I know of organisations that do not have enough desks for the people that they employ, it’s increasing.  There’s a number of organisations in that space, many of them are in the cities and many are probably listening to this.  And so, you know, there’s a booking system, I get on online and I book a desk for the day and so on, so if I turn up after a certain period of time and there’s no desk for me.  So I think what’s happened is that COVID has just accelerated all this sort of stuff, right?  On one hand there’s this need, and it will increase during this time, of the need to give people a sense of flexibility, to let them choose where and how they want to work, and that’s great because we’ve seen the benefits to our working lives and our balance and our mental health and all the rest of it that comes with that.  But on the other hand there’s this sense of connection to the organisation and do we let the rope out too far and lose that connection to individual.

So as much as jobs have evolved over the years about being more than just a way to pay bills, work is also evolving to a state where it’s much more than a place you go to.  So, you know, we need to work on this change, you know, to use a little bit of jargon here, the employee value proposition, what’s in it for the employee?  You know, if the swanky office isn’t the drawcard and the experience in the office isn’t the drawcard or it’s not as much of a drawcard any more, then is working how you want and where you want enough of a drawcard and how long will that last for, so to sort of build on some of Katie’s points there.

So, you know, companies are going to have to think really hard and really differently about how they’re going to retain their talent.  I mean for me it’s this, you know, it’s time for a new deal right, if you like it’s the new leadership deal of how we’re going to work with individuals during this time to increase that connection when we might not see them in some cases for quite a long time.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

It sounds like a huge leap forward for the way that we work, surely there are obstacles?

Matt Croxford

Look, absolutely Velvet-Belle, there are.  I mean I have to say I sometimes wonder whether the fact that we’ve been arguably so successful in navigating this pandemic might actually work against us.  You know, we’re getting through this quicker and faster than many of us thought possible but there are some sectors out there that are still seeing this, because we’ve got through it so quickly hey this has just been a bump in the road, we need to get back to normal, and that’s where we began in this conversation this morning, you know, we need to get back to normal, get back to the way things were.  And I’ve got to say I feel really sorry for those people who are experiencing that because what they’re missing out on is a chance to make a real change in the way that they operate.  I mean this is outdated thinking, albeit it was outdated only a few months ago.  But it’s restricted and it’s really based on scarcity, there’s not enough to go around, whereas new ways of thinking about abundance, there’s different ways of operating and thinking we can actually get more out of our lives rather than more in particular aspects of our lives. 

I mean I heard something the other day from a law firm and this particular law firm sent an email to all of its staff saying look don’t rush back to work, you should come back when you feel safe enough to do so and comfortable enough to do so, and then in a separate email sent soon afterwards, an email out to all the partners saying we expect you back at your desk on Monday morning as a show of strength, so this is a real sort of conundrum in these types of organisations.

I mentioned the leadership deal before just a moment ago, and I think this is something that organisations really do need to spend some time thinking about.  The core here is about trust and so during this time of COVID when the workforce has been scattered and at home, leaders and managers have had to trust their people to get on with it because they haven’t had any choice.  Now moving forward they will have a choice and so this is the same surround on what is the trust conditional?  If I’ve got a choice do I really trust these people, and so how does that shape the way I think and act and behave as a leader?

I saw this really kind of amusing post the other day online and it was about who was responsible for transforming your organisation.  So, you know, it listed a big consultancy – I won’t name them, the CEO IT of COVID-19.  So it’s clear, I mean COVID-19 has been probably one of the most single, most powerful transformative forces that we’ve seen in work in many, many years.  Whilst it’s been hugely impactful it’s also been very, very quick, and I wonder, you know, we are creatures of habit, the path of least resistance is a path well-worn for a number of good reasons.  I wonder how soon we might be able to revert back and we all know that change is hard.  So I’m not sure that we are fully transformed, there’ll be pockets of air where things are different and there’ll be some pockets where things are going back to the way they have.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

So Matt and Katie, this is your wheelhouse, you talk about culture and leadership and people all day, where do you think that this is all leading?

Katie O’Keeffe

Oh gosh, I wish I knew the answer to that, I wish I had a crystal ball.  I’m so curious to see where it does all go, and as you say this is my wheelhouse and so I’ll be reading, talking and listening and watching intently to see what questions we ask ourselves and each other, how we reflect the lessons we learn and how we take that forward into the future.  I said earlier I’m an optimist to the end so I’m very hopeful that we will look back on this time as an extremely difficult and challenging period in human history that changed our course for the better.  It was a time when we paused because we had to, we reconnected with each other as humans and we re-examined what really matters.

Matt Croxford

Look, from my perspective Velvet-Belle, I mean I joked earlier on about the next generation, you know, our kids thanking us for the legacy that we left behind as a result of using COVID to re-design the way we work and the world that work is and the connection that we have to it, and so my real great hope is that we actually do.  And secondly, that it’s a legacy that really is worth leaving behind.

Velvet-Belle Templeman

Matt and Katie, thank you for your time.

Matt Croxford

Thank you Velvet-Belle, a pleasure.

Katie O’Keeffe

Thanks Velvet-Belle.

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