“There are people who miss their colleagues and can’t wait to get back into an office environment, and there are others flourishing in a home setting.”
CEOs stressed that in-person interaction between staff helped create lasting relationships.
“People need to spend a little bit of time together just to keep the trust levels up and the familiarity up and that sense of team,” said Aurizon CEO Andrew Harding.
Aurizon, which is headquartered in Brisbane, was able to transition easily to home working because it had moved into new offices in mid-2018 and employees had become used to hot-desking with laptops, Mr Harding said.
“The neat part about establishing a flexible-plan working environment when we moved into the new office [in Brisbane] is that people could work anywhere in the building and/or anywhere in the country or the world,” Mr Harding said.
Despite low levels of COVID-19 transmission in Queensland, the rail group was playing it safe and targeting only a 25 per cent return to its Brisbane office initially, he said.
COVID-19 had changed what people wanted in life and he would encourage staff to do what “works for them”, he added.
Aurizon had proved it could run its business, produce its results and annual report by mostly working from home 100 per cent. “So I think the answer is not zero or 100 per cent [in the office], it’s in that soggy centre region.”
Other companies are eyeing the cost savings from having more staff at home.
Resmed CEO Mick Farrell said in markets where the medical device and software group had opened, such as Germany and Sweden, about one quarter of staff liked working from home and would come in only once a month in future.
Another quarter were “social animals” and wanted to go into the office full-time, Mr Farrell said.
“I think there will be a 25 per cent reduction in people coming to the office on average,” he said. “That is fine – no more increases in real estate costs, and reduction in travel and an increase in technology infrastructure.”
Global engineering group Worley is also counting the savings of getting rid of offices after CEO Chris Ashton said at least half its 46,000 staff were expected to work remotely part or all of the time in future.
Many CEOs were finding staff worked harder from home during the lockdowns than they did in the office before the pandemic hit.
WiseTech CEO Richard White said productivity rose 10 per cent at the software group since the shift to remote working. “We’re committed to a hybrid home office working model,” Mr White said.
And some, like CSL CEO Paul Perreault, said greater use of technology to communicate with the biotech group’s workers globally had boosted collaboration.
“As a global organisation our management structures have always been apart geographically and we’ve tended to somewhat rely on air travel to connect and build relationships,” Mr Perreault said.
“Through COVID-19, surprisingly, I’ve seen many relationships strengthened as leaders put care and concern first, along with absolute trust while working towards a common goal.”
There are three big detriments to working from home – problem solving, collaboration and innovation
— Jamie Pherous, Corporate Travel CEO
Mr Perreault said there was no “one size fits all” answer to the future of work.
“It will certainly be more agile in terms of where people work from, but there is a very important place – currently missing in these circumstances – for building social capital when you’re in the same room.
“Those incidental corridor conversations or face-to-face meetings that allow a freer flow of discussions that challenge, create, strategise and collaborate are very necessary for our culture.”
Corporate Travel CEO Jamie Pherous was also sceptical about a permanent shift to home working, saying the business travel booker had suffered difficulties with so many people working remotely.
“We were doing a big global project, and having 20 different homes to problem solve and get people on the plan [was a challenge],” Mr Pherous said.
“There are three big detriments to working from home – problem solving, collaboration and innovation – and for a long-term sustainable, competitive advantage you need all those things.”
Corporate Travel would have a hybrid work structure in future, Mr Pherous said.
Adairs CEO Mark Ronan concurred, saying it had been hard to shut the homewares company’s office.
“With things like product and samples and colours and fabrications, most of my team in those roles really enjoy being in the office working with each other,” Mr Ronan said.
“We will help enable it but we’ll find more and more people will do a blend of the two as opposed to permanently working from home.”
At tollroad group Atlas Arteria, about 30 people globally who work for the head office are still working from home, but CEO Graeme Bevans said it had been more difficult for new employees to meet their colleagues.
“In order to maintain culture one needs a period of time when people are meeting as an entire group so you get that cross-group interaction and people get to know each other not just in the particular group areas that they work in but across the broader organisation,” Mr Bevans said.
Executives were finding that staff were choosing to come back to work where they could.
Transurban CEO Scott Charlton said about 90 per cent of the tollroad company’s workforce was “agile” before COVID-19 and able to work from either the home or the office, but many employees in Sydney and Brisbane had returned to the workplace.
“We have a lot of people in Victoria that would love to return to the office, but obviously can’t,” Mr Charlton said.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce predicted that while there would be more flexibility for staff who did not have to be on a plane or at an airport, there would not be “a complete revolution”.
“Right now, we’re all relying on relationships we’ve built up over months and years of face-to-face contact when we jump on a video conference,” Mr Joyce said. “Try doing that with a person you’ve never met – it’s a lot harder.”
With Jonathan Shapiro, Sue Mitchell, Lucas Baird