After almost two years of pandemic-induced disruption, companies and workers have finally started to experience a sense of normality across Australia in 2022. In the second quarter, most businesses began going back to the office without government restrictions and are now defining their new working models.
At RMIT Online, we study and help shape the future of work. This report contributes to understanding how businesses rethink these new models post-COVID.
The most critical finding of the report is that leaders and their employees have significantly different views about how to move forward, the impacts of the changes, and what the future holds. This dissent led our research team to coin the expression "The Office Clash" to name the growing rift between business leaders and workers regarding the office's role.
One example of this contrast is that an overwhelming majority of respondents (89%) say organisations want employees back in the office most of the time, while 91% of non-managers believe employees wish for much more flexibility. The friction is already happening. Almost half (44%) of those interviewed say their bosses have mandated they go back to the office full time, but 71% of those back would prefer to spend at least one day at home -- 56% would want two days or more.
View the report here
There are multiple explanations for this rising tension between companies and employees — factors like age, commuting length, and the current working model all impact the opinions. But the most significant differences are influenced by the position in the company.
Only 21% believe managers and non-managers agree on the best way to work. These two groups have different views about productivity, why people want flexibility or the reasons companies like them in the office.
Most managers (58%) agree workers can be equally productive at home or in the company, but one in four (24%) say workers are more effective in the office. Only 12% of employees believe this to be true.
The two groups also have different perceptions of why employees want to spend part of their time at home. Although managers and non-managers agree that spending time with families is the leading reason for hybrid work, there is an almost 20 percentage points difference between the two groups. While 53% of managers think family time is the primary reason for working at home, 70% of non-managers say this is the biggest motivation. When allowed to enumerate all the reasons for hybrid work, managers gave 3.4 options on average -- employees, 4.5.
The impact of this clash is severe for companies. A large majority of those interviewed (93%) state that flexibility is essential when accepting a new job or staying in their current role. It ranks in the top three considerations only behind remuneration and work-life balance for all respondents. However, non-managers say flexibility is the second most crucial factor for going to a new job, placing only money as more important.
Companies that are not understanding how vital flexibility has become are losing staff. Approximately one in three managers have lost or risk losing a team member over their flexibility policies. Businesses with rigid working models (e.g. employees spending more or full time at the office) concentrated 75% of these losses.
Although managers and non-managers agree companies are trying to listen to employees, the report reveals significant room for improvement. Close to half of the respondents (47%) said companies need to identify the reasons for going back to the office and be transparent about it. The same number of respondents agree that businesses have to listen more and allow individual flexible solutions.
Almost a third of employees (27%) think companies don't know why the office is essential. For them, the insistence on going back is motivated by tradition or leaders feeling the office is a physical representation of their professional success.
With most employees wanting flexibility and almost half (46%) believing the hybrid model will continue, companies' leadership will have to be more open to what employees are saying and understand they need to build new work models together. This study is our contribution to this dialogue.
The conflict detected by this research shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. After a period of profound disruption, it is only natural companies are still trying to figure out what to do. The challenge for leaders is that the new situation has created more questions and placed more work in their laps. Before the pandemic, it was assumed offices increased collaboration, helped sustain the company's culture and were a place where junior staff learned from experienced colleagues just by observing them.
The mass experience we all went through since 2020 has confronted these assumptions and questioned the office's role. Technology proved to be a great ally, and many people -- including experts -- are discussing if we overestimated the need to meet coworkers in a physical space every day.
Managers will have to work harder to find the answers and ensure productivity and workers' satisfaction are aligned. They will have to be able to track productivity more precisely and use data to understand what is happening. They will need to listen more and more often. They will have to upskill and train themselves and their staff to perform well in virtual and physical spaces with different purposes.
Employees who don't manage teams also will need to engage in this process. They will have to do their best to be productive and use the available tools; to understand how different models and routines can impact their learning process and work progression -- and adjust accordingly.
We are building the future of work collectively, and at a pace nobody expected. Today there are more questions than answers, but finding solutions for companies and workers will be critical for businesses success.
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About The Research
The survey “Office Clash: How back to work policies are dividing management and workers” was produced by the RMIT Online team in partnership with the market research company IPSOS. In total, the research team interviewed 800 Australian workers between the April 21 and May 2 of 2022. The positions were classified as managers (Executive or business owner, CEO, Director and Manager) and no-managers (employees and interns).
About RMIT Online
RMIT Online was created by RMIT University to provide a world-class digital learning experience at the nexus of business, design and technology, leaning into future of work needs to equip students with in-demand skills and qualifications. RMIT Online teams up with industry thought leaders and experts to deliver the best in flexible education using the latest digital tools and technologies for a highly interactive, virtual cohort experience. RMIT Online is dedicated to achieving its mission of future-ready careers and creating a “community of lifelong learners, successfully navigating the world of work”.