The upsides of going back to the office


The fluorescent lights are being flicked back on and photocopiers are whirring to life, as workers across Australia return to offices.

After an on-and-off again two years between COVID restrictions, employers are beckoning workers out of their home offices and back into the workplace.

But not everyone is happy to take their seat back in the office.

A 2021 PwC survey found 35 per cent of staff preferred a hybrid model of remote and face-to-face working, 25 per cent wanted mostly virtual working and 16 per cent favoured wholly virtual working.

Only 10 per cent were keen to return to a traditional work environment.

Yet employers say employers are more productive when in the workplace, rather than at home. And it’s not just about workplace efficiency, organisations believe those in the office reap a multitude of personal career benefits.

But it won’t be business as usual – industry leaders recommend bosses take a balanced approach in the post-pandemic ‘new normal’.

On site learning will improve

By simply being on site, workers in all professions can learn more job skills and are better placed to advance their careers, said Ben Foote, chief executive of the Australian Institute of Management.

“In many roles there is a lot to learn through observing and listening and overhearing and being within a team to ultimately see what people are doing to be successful and pick up cues from that and be able to replicate them,” he said.

“I think there were two casualties in terms of the highly flexible and remote working trend, and I’d say the first one is the learning people get early in their careers and that comes about by being around people, not only within your team, but more importantly cross-functionally in an organisation.

“The second casualty is it’s great if an individual who is accomplished in their job decides to work entirely remotely, but everybody has to learn somewhere and this trend (remote working) is going to inhibit new starters.

“It’s much harder for any new starter in an organisation, not just people new to their careers, to be successful in their role if they’re only interacting with people through virtual meetings.”

More can be achieved in the office, employers say. Photo: Getty

Stronger relationships IRL

Those incidental interactions in the office are often called watercooler conversations. But in truth, those chance meetings happen all over the place – bumping into someone in the hallway or preparing lunch together in the kitchen.

You might share vital information from different meetings or introduce a colleague to a team member whose expertise is critical to a project they are working on.

It’s what researchers call social capital and it helps organisations work towards their common goals.

Working from home just doesn’t provide the same opportunities as can be experienced in real life (IRL), said Foote.

“Relationship building and building trust, and having informal discussions around business within an office environment is a really important way for people to be heard outside of formal meetings,” he said.

Better home-life balance

Lockdown life introduced us all to the blurring of home and work lives. It suddenly became easier to work overtime, rather than respecting the boundaries of where work life ended and personal life started.

It’s where flexibility can go wrong, said Andrew McKellar, chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“Flexibility is important, but equally people are looking to be able to separate those different parts of their life,” he said.

“Many people find when they’re working in a home environment, there’s no demarcation between home and work.

“A lot of them were actually working a lot harder – more hours, more intensively – and there was a lot of stress coming from that. So I think the ability to say, ‘Now I’m in the office I’ll focus on that and then it’s time to knock off and go home where I can focus on family’.”

CBDs across Australia are slowly returning to pre-pandemic activity. Photo: Getty

CBDs need to restart

Foot traffic in Australian central business districts plummeted during lockdowns. Melbourne’s strict restrictions brought a fall in pedestrian activity in 2020 to just 10 per cent of normal levels.

CBDs need to restart for our economy to truly flourish, said McKellar.

“It’s not just a matter of having people working together in an office,” he said.

“You have businesses coming together in a centralised area so there’s proximity to supporting businesses and services.

“So it’s an economic hub that’s generating employment, activity, income and wealth.”

There are no mandates on when workers need to return to offices. But after the past two years of people becoming accustomed to working from home, employment groups are urging businesses to allow their workers ongoing flexibility.

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