Publish date: 15 April 2024

The work-from-home and flexible work dilemma has seemingly divided employers and workers over the last couple of years. Social media headlines have been dominated by stories of large employers trying to convince (perhaps even “coerce”) their employees to return to the workplace, while workers who have benefitted from the work life balance of telecommuting are clinging on to the arrangements by their fingernails. But there are evidentiary conflicts aplenty, and some studies have found that work-from-homers have been perfectly effective and improved worker’s quality of life, while others have found that not only has productivity decreased, but that culture has also suffered. So, who do we believe? Or does it simply depend on your perspective? Or have they all got it wrong?

I was intrigued to read that in 2023, articles on flexible and remote work – and its impact on culture – dominated the list of “most engaged” stories on the LinkedIn platform. It’s clearly an issue of great concern to both employers and employees alike. In our so-called “post pandemic” period, the future of work is being debated like never before. From a 4-day work week to work-from-home, telecommuting and flexibility, opinions are as polarised as the Republicans and Democrats in the race to the Whitehouse. And while we must respect all sides of the debate, I struggle to see why we look to measure time, clicks and keystrokes when at the end of the day, all that both sides should be concerned with, is value creation.

There are at least a couple of truisms when it comes to remote work; it greatly enhances work life balance, but it also negatively impacts culture (and on one view, productivity). A 2023 OECD report has seen a “decoupling” of wages and productivity, perhaps due to the confluence of labour market shortages driving up wages while enforced and unplanned work-from-home brought with it productivity declines. But with the labour market pendulum beginning to swing back in favour of employers, do we risk seeing real wages erode as SME’s takes steps to tighten the expense line and balance the budget? 

The most immediate price paid by home-based employees was their privacy, as paranoid employers engaged with technology to monitor metrics such as activity on a keyboard and even mandated that cameras be left on so that managers could “watch” their pyjama-wearing workers in all their diligent and compliant glory. But if the OECD study is right, this surveillance by stealth did little to improve productivity. A period of “quiet quitting” was then the high-water mark of a labour market cycle in which workers held all the Aces – a phenomenon which did little to enhance national GDP.

So, what does the near future hold for remote workers? My guesses:

  1. Organisations who want to emphasize collaborative practices will adopt policies of paying more to staff who work full time in the office
  2. Most professional service employers will develop policies that enable a balance of remote and office-based work, by adopting technology-based measures of productivity
  3. KPI’s will shift to focus on metrics of value creation, rather than tasks or time on the keyboard
  4. Employees will make career decisions based on their personal circumstances and will sacrifice income or career progression if they value flexibility or family time more highly than their short-term career aspirations

At the end of the day, fairness is the key consideration. Employees know that they need to deliver a fair contribution judged by their role, responsibilities and remuneration. But employers need to be prepared to be malleable where the requested flexibility has little or no impact on organisational performance. To my mind, time and energy spent formulating and complying with rigorous policies and then arguing about exceptions would be much better spent on creating value for stakeholders of the organisation. And time at the desk doesn’t of itself, equate to productivity!

What “value creation” looks like will vary from one business to another, and measuring it isn’t always easy, but organisations that make it their strategic focus will inevitably outperform their time-focussed competitors.

To me, technology, training and balance are the keys to releasing the remote work tension and ensuring sustainable businesses. Just as total flexibility has too high a price on performance and culture, so too does stubborn inflexibility come at a cost too high for organisations to bear. If my guess is right, within 5 years, most professional services firms will forget measurements of units of time, clicks or keystrokes, but rather will have invested heavily in tech, systems, processes and policies that enable flexible but part-time work-from-homers to deliver measurable value, while providing employment conditions that respect a new post-Covid normal.

As published in Australian Lawyers Alliance, Noosa Today QLS Proctor and Hearsay

Travis Schultz
Travis Schultz
Managing Partner
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