The jewel of Australia’s tech sector, Atlassian, has been lauded for giving staff the privilege of working from home forever. But when I posted the story on our team Slack channel, I added a comment warning of the longer-term impact of “remote forever”.
One of our senior team members replied: “Why do people travel in the morning to an office, in a packed tram/train carrying a laptop, then work on that laptop only to carry it back home in a packed train, wasting precious time? That looked comical to me for a long time.”
When I worked for another technology company, we spent a lot of energy trying to convince leadership that WFH did not mean a free ride and would, in fact, unleash productivity and improve engagement. COVID-19 has brought forward the idea of WFH as an alternative arrangement for many who would not have otherwise considered it.
While we may be revelling in the success of dismantling the long-held bias that you need to see someone at work to trust they are doing the work, it comes with its own challenges around organisational relevance.
Does it matter what company you work for if the only difference between one job and another is for whom you are completing a task, and perhaps the one or two people with whom you work closely?
When we all worked in ofﬁces, some of that intimacy was built by the serendipity of conversations you had while going about your day’s work.
There was always the potential to catch someone from outside your team and share an idea and solicit a different perspective. There was an ease of connections and interactions that can be hard to replicate in a remote work context.
Being remote is a little bit like trying to establish a long-distance relationship which, as many know, has the chances of success stacked against it.
Then there is the inﬂuence of place, and of space. At REA Group, where I worked for some years, the building fed the culture. Its design and redesign had been carefully thought through to maximise connections and space to collaborate – and not just with those in your immediate team.
Why do people go to church to pray, the pub to drink, and the footy to watch their team, when they have the Bible at home, beer in the fridge and a TV in the living room? Because they are looking for connection, community and inspiration.
Once the novelty of WFH wears off, and for many it already has, comes the challenge of maintaining connection, building afﬁliation and building cultures when people and teams are not physically spending time together in a shared space.
How do you assess performance when you can’t see people at work? How do you look out for people, mentor them, develop them, when your interactions are all booked in, bounded within a strict working day? How do you acknowledge someone for something you heard they did well, as you might if you jump in a lift together?
There is a real risk our employment relationship becomes transactional, which affects engagement, which then affects productivity.
We know from our own work in this space, personality is not 16 types on a table – it is way more nuanced and diverse than that. In a population of 85,000, equal men and women, we ﬁnd at least 400 uniquely identiﬁable personality types.
We live in a world of hyper-personalisation, from our morning news feed to our Netﬂix proﬁle based on our viewing history.
How can an organisation retain that diversity of perspective when it usually thinks of two binary ways of working: in an ofﬁce or at home?
It can’t. That is why the future of work has to involve a new type of technology that can navigate the rich mix of types we work with and adapt to their communication and working style.
I have championed for WFH when in senior HR positions, but this experience has highlighted the many things I might have taken for granted in an ofﬁce environment – and it has nothing to do with fancy decor and an ergonomic chair. It is more the human moments of serendipitous connection that disappeared so quickly, almost without time to say goodbye.
I am learning what my motivations are and what connections I want in a day. From my conversations with friends and workmates, they are making similar discoveries.
I would like to think we all emerge from this situation with a mind to honour the things we have learnt about our “work selves” and, most importantly, to build company cultures that thrive by accommodating those diverse needs.
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