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‘A New Normal’: How COVID-19 Will Reimagine The Aussie Workplace

Will hot-desking, water cooler chats and crowded lifts forever be a thing of the past? Experts say the pandemic will bring some big and welcome changes to how and where we work.

For almost two months, an estimated one million Australians have been working from home to manage the spread of COVID-19.

That will soon begin to change as authorities turn their focus to getting some workers back to the office.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has outlined the national cabinet’s planned three-step easing of restrictions, setting a July target for most employees to return to their workplaces.

Employers have also been working on their own risk mitigation plans, in line with guidelines set by Safe Work Australia.

Many Australians have just started getting used to working from home, and might find shifting back the office difficult. Image: Getty

So, what will that look like? Experts say that depends on the business, what working conditions were like before the pandemic hit, and how it's embraced remote work.

Interior architect and UNSW Built Environment Lecturer Iva Durakovic said while workplaces may look different in the short-term, the rest is up in the air.

“I think it really comes down to where an organisation was before this happened, and how far and how dramatically they’re going to have to shift,” she told 10 daily.

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Durakovic believes that shift will come down to re-imagining the office and what it’s used for.

"We do need to come together -- there is still a definite purpose that a physical workplace facilitates in work. But I think there will be more considered choices around that," she said.

Shanta Dey, a psychologist and University of Sydney workplace mental health researcher, said it will be some time before workplaces are back to ‘normal’.

“We’ve never really encountered forced leave from physical workplaces before,” she told 10 daily.

A ‘New Normal’

KPMG, one of the big four consulting firms, is heading towards a “new normal”, according to its National Managing Partner of People, Performance and Culture, Deborah Yates.

“I don’t think we’ll go back to where we were… hopefully we’ll be better,” Yates told 10 daily.

KPMG has a network of firms across 147 countries and employs more than 200,000 people.

Yates said while the company has had an “agile” working policy in place for several years, it has never had as many people working from home.

KPMG has been working on a three-phased return to office plan for several weeks, in line with the approach set out by the national cabinet.

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Yates said phase one -- a return of about 15 percent of its national workforce -- will start next Monday, followed by up to 50 percent and 75 percent in phases two and three.

Getting To Work

Health authorities say one of the biggest challenges to maintaining social distancing will be the gradual return of commuters to public transport.

Businesses are being urged to stagger the times their employees start and finish work to reduce density on trains and buses.

“Social distancing is not possible when you are crowded,” National Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said.

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Yates said KPMG employers who choose to drive into work will be asked to do so during peak hour, while those on public transport will be encouraged to travel outside of peak.

“That will help us to smooth our access into buildings,” she said.

Researcher Matthew Beck, from the Institute of Transport and Logistic Studies (ITLS), told 10 daily staggered times will help to spread the peak load over a longer period of time, allowing the network to cope better.

Authorities are working out how to manage congestion on public transport routes. Image; AAP

But he said we should expect more cars on the roads as Aussies head back to the office.

Preliminary findings from an ITLS survey of over 1,000 Australians found about 80 percent of respondents are concerned about hygiene on public transport. A similar percentage said driving was the most comfortable option, while buses were the least comfortable option.

“But at some point, traffic congestion could become so bad that people just don’t want to drive into a central work location,” Beck said.

traffic jam
Beck said we should expect more cars on the road as Aussies return to the office. Image: Getty

Public transport authorities are understood to be meeting this week to discuss safety measures.

Beck said they should consider “demonstrable actions” such as having easily identifiable staff who can be seen cleaning on a train or bus.

“It’s a mix of doing things that people can see that make them feel comfortable about the cleanliness and travelling with other people,” he said.

At The Office

Even how an employee accesses their building is set to change.

Yates said lifts will be the “biggest challenge.”

“The guidance is for some of our buildings, we can only get one person in at a time. For other buildings, that might be two, three or four people at once,” she said.

Yates said signage will be on every floor to enforce social distancing as staff wait for lifts, while staggering the number of people coming into the office will help as they "learn to manage that bottleneck.”

We won't be crowding into lifts anymore. Image: Getty

Durakovic said employers and employees should expect lift control won’t be as efficient as before.

“That’s going to be a level of understanding we need to work on for everyone’s benefit,” she said.

Once inside the office, KPMG has introduced a ‘book-a-desk’ system that will allocate a desk to each employee working on a particular day. Some desks will be held for clients, while others will be allocated for “priority” staff who need to come into the office.

“That will ensure we know the number of people we’re expecting to come into the office, and where they’re sitting,” Yates said, adding some desks won’t be in use due to social distancing rules.

Hot-desking will be a thing of the past. Image: Getty

She said the firm has tested protocols for communal areas, such as a one-way system in the kitchen and removing reusable crockery.

Durakovic said to expect “simple and pragmatic solutions” around what we can and can’t touch in a workplace.

“Designers are going to look at things like copper door handles that are naturally antimicrobial materials, or solving problems around contactless entry and exits” she said.

“Innovation is happening in that space already… it just comes down to the management of it.”

How We Work

Beyond the physical changes in a workplace, Durakovic believes the biggest shift will be around work style and how organisations manage their staff.

She said the pandemic has been an opportunity to embrace remote or online working -- and that some organisations may continue to offer that to employees.

“What we’re hearing from emerging research is that everybody either has flexible work at play or is developing a strategy to do so,” she said.

I think people will welcome that choice and that flexibility to maximise their work/life balance after all of this.

Yates said KPMG will start to consider the home as a “hub of work”.

“Do I think I’ll ever go five days into the office again? Probably not, to be honest,” she said.

“I think there’ll be many colleagues like me, and we can accommodate that.”

Yates said “smashing” stereotypes around the home as a productive work hub  has been one of the silver linings of the pandemic.

“Video conferencing and getting a peak into each of our lives has reminded us all how human we are,” she said.

Working from home hasn't been smooth for everyone. Image: Getty

Staying Connected

But it hasn’t worked for everyone.

Dey has worked with the Brain and Mind Centre and the Black Dog Institute to understand how working online at home impacts Aussies’ well-being and mental health.

She said a review of studies found remote work is a “double-edged sword” that will need to be considered as we transition back to the office.

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“For some people, it might mean an increased sense of control or flexibility around how they choose to structure their day, which means more time to engage in more meaningful activities,” she said.

“But we also found many pitfalls, such as increased social isolation and loneliness, which is linked to depression and anxiety.”

Dey said while it’s possible organisations will continue to adopt remote working  -- if not continue it entirely -- managers should be cognisant of having more realistic expectations of their employees.

She said the return to the office will be exciting for some staff but challenging for others who are feeling burnt out.

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Yates said both physical and mental safety of staff is KPMG’s focus.

“We’ve learned a lot about virtual connection through the pandemic, and etiquette around checking in virtually is a muscle we have started to build,” she said.

“We’ll be focused on maintaining that as we return to the office.”

Ultimately, Durakovic hopes organisations will harness the “positive outcomes” that have come from the crisis.

“I think we might be in for a much more satisfied workforce,” she said.

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au