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New normal or back to normal? Why the remote working revolution isn't here yet.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t yet over, but already there’s a rush to analyse the impacts and results on our working lives. Some say the office is dead. Others believe contracts have replaced permanent employment, as organisations hedge their bets or workers decide more time with their families or hobbies isn’t such a bad thing. 

Some say remote working has given people more autonomy, with groups of colleagues choosing to problem-solve for themselves rather than rely on the boss. But in New Zealand, the truth might be much less dramatic.

Baker Tilly Staples Rodway HR specialists, Chris Wright and Andrea Stevenson, agree that for New Zealanders, reports of a huge shift in ways of working aren’t borne out by the evidence. As creatures of habit, we haven’t so much embraced a ‘new’ normal as gone back to normal, with a dash of flexibility thrown in.

Wright’s anecdotal experience of Auckland traffic backs up this conclusion. “I’ve seen one or two people move to the bach to work, but generally people are not leaving the office. I commute along Onewa Road on the North Shore and it’s just as busy as it was before COVID-19. The temporary increase in flexible working already seems to have gone.”

Colleague Stevenson agrees it’s the same in Hawkes Bay. “A number of people have found working from home disjointed, so people are coming back in. What I think COVID-19 has done is simply open the doors more to having a conversation with your team leader about flexible working. Before, most of us simply weren’t set up to do that, but now the technology is there it’s accepted as something you might be able to negotiate.”

 

Working from home not always the best option

Statistics New Zealand found that while more than 40 per cent of employed New Zealanders did at least some work from home during lockdown in April and May, 83 per cent of people were back to working outside the home by Alert Level 1. Even some of those working from home would have returned to their usual workplace some of the time.

Stevenson says many clients found working from home less enjoyable than they expected, depending on individual personalities or circumstances. Instead, a desire for familiarity and connection led many to feel a sense of relief on returning to work. While some Kiwis may request to work one or two days from home, it’s not likely to result in widespread Facebook-style remote working.

 

Employees & employers generally prefer the office environment

“COVID-19 provided good arguments both for and against remote working. The pandemic has taught us it’s often just as productive to work from home as in the office, but there have been such mixed views about flexible working. While we may see some offices shrink as AMP Wealth Management has, reports are this isn’t happening as much as you might expect,” Wright says.

Just 2 per cent of Wellington’s office space has opened up since the start of 2020, and Auckland is in a similar situation. Studies have also shown younger workers in the first few years in their profession prefer to work in the office so they can shadow their peers and build important connections. Learning by example is much harder to do at a distance, let alone experiencing your workplace culture.

 

The Challenge of distance

Says Wright: “It’s challenging to people to do things differently. Also, organisations find it difficult to maintain a connection to workers at such a distance – as one Victoria University study showed, management styles need to be different. While some do it successfully, they need to ensure their messaging is consistent across their whole organisation, that workers’ contributions are acknowledged and they feel part of a whole. With some organisations, maintaining those connections and relinquishing control is just too large a step.”

Nor have we experienced the same explosion in contracting – the gig economy – that’s been forecast in other countries as a result of the emphasis on flexible working and uncertainty around the future. Rather, says Stevenson, things are on much the same gradual growth trajectory they’ve been for the past 10 years, though some sectors have been affected more than others.

 

New Zealand's economic buffer zone

“We as a country are buffered compared with the rest of the world, without having had the ongoing lockdowns they have,” Stevenson says. “Wage subsidies and other business relief have also supported employers to get through and retain a sense of optimism. Long-term, I see automation and Artificial Intelligence changing the way we work in more fundamental ways.”

Adds Wright: “We might have expected employers to embrace the flexibility of short-term contracts and de-risk themselves as they have in the UK, but there’s greater confidence that despite some uncertainty, we’re doing okay here.”

After an initial employment freeze, there’s also much more movement in the employment market. Professional services in particular are much more confident than they were in mid-2020, making new employment decisions.

 

Technology a key foundation stone

The one major change that can’t be disputed is, of course, our use of technology. As Stevenson points out, what COVID-19 has done is overcome resistance to testing out Microsoft Teams or Zoom.

“COVID-19 did allow us to make rapid technological changes that some organisations had been wanting to do for a while, and that meant some staff who might otherwise have been a little resistant got on board very quick. Many of those changes are now embedded, and we have a better way of working as a result. When it comes to ways of working, this is the real seismic shift 2020 has created and it just demonstrates how agile people can be.”

In all other ways, New Zealand workplaces seem to have experienced a gentle nudge towards flexibility rather than total upheaval, continuing long-term trends. We’ll probably see more people enjoying days at home, using new technologies and negotiating terms at performance review time, but otherwise our workplaces of tomorrow look very much like today’s.

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