SmartCompany: Change or be swept out to sea - the case for remote work

This article first appeared in SmartCompany.

By Adam Barty, Managing Director, Revium

It’s one of the hottest and most enduring debates in the business world over the past 12 months: how much should people be allowed to work from home? Everyone, from Elon Musk to CBA CEO Matt Comyn and former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, has been pushing the line that a genuinely flexible approach to working arrangements will undermine the productivity, creativity and success of any organisation that embraces it.

But I am getting tired of the bullshit arguments being trotted out by various employers, and feel compelled to share a contrarian view. I’m the managing director of a growing digital consultancy with nearly 50 staff, mostly in Melbourne. But, earlier this year, we moved into a new office with space for just 16 desks — and my team and I couldn’t be happier.

Indeed, since the start of the pandemic and the enforced work-from-home mandate, we never came close to using all the desks in our former office. That’s because it’s been over two years since we formalised our hybrid working policy, which requires that staff come into the office for a minimum of one day per week, and a maximum of four, leaving it to their discretion which day of the week they choose to come in.   

Despite what you hear from the people who want to put a stop to working from home, we have not suffered any losses in productivity as a result – in fact, if anything we have seen improvements in productivity. We also haven’t had any issues with collaboration, training new staff, innovation, culture, or our staff forming relationships. Quite the opposite: we have seen an increase in staff satisfaction (formally measured through eNPS), better staff retention (we are under 2% staff turnover this calendar year), and an increase in people applying to work with us. 

Every industry and business is, of course, different, and the industry we are in means we have some advantages given our team is already pretty tech savvy and we have the ability to build our own digital tools to help make the shift to hybrid working easier. But I don’t think that is the main reason for our successful switch to a new model of office use. There are two key reasons why it has worked: we invested heavily in making it work, and our relationship with our team is built on trust.  

Like everyone, when the pandemic hit and we were forced to instantly shift to working remotely for months on end, it wasn’t all peaches and cream. We had issues with new graduate staff two weeks into their first job having to be mentored and coached remotely; we had challenges with how we ran interactive client workshops; and we had issues with how we shared knowledge and how we maintained morale, among many other things.  

None of this was surprising, but very early on during the pandemic we figured there was a good chance the changed perspective on working in the office would be here to stay, especially given all of the positives it was delivering for staff. So, we started to talk with our team to understand how they saw the future of work and to map out how we could change the business to support the new paradigm. 

This meant we trialled a heap of different initiatives, from moving to hot desks (and all the machinations that involves), to daily virtual standups, digital workshop software, and even a new instant messaging-based rewards and recognition scheme. Some of the ideas flopped (such as only coming in on Fridays if you had been in another day of the week), but some of them didn’t and they now form the foundation of how we operate as a business. 

We have built our own bespoke software that integrates with our Office 365 calendars so staff can manage which days they will come in. We have a much more detailed and structured approach to training and development. We have restructured the way we use instant messaging across the business, and it has become a key town square for the team. We have invested in initiatives to embed culture through regular events and our rewards and recognition program.

All of these changes required an investment of time, effort and, in many cases, money. But it has paid us back in spades, with our business now running smoother than it ever has and we have a happy, productive and grateful team who get to spend less time commuting and more time with their families, friends, pets and gaming consoles. 

Many companies out there, including some of our competitors, lost a significant chunk of their staff because of their bloody-minded insistence that people work from very expensive offices that cost an arm and a leg to fit out and lease. How do I know? Because some of them now work for us. The world is changing, and the nature of work is changing; you can fight against the current all you want but if you don’t change, inevitably you’ll be swept out to sea.

The solution to the working-from-home dilemma is simple. Take a pragmatic approach and consider what outcomes you want from a business performance perspective – instead of starting with the premise that because working from the office was the way it always was, it’s the way it always will be. Consider whether your efforts may be better spent investing in adapting your business to support a flexible model, instead of fighting the losing battle by spending money and effort trying to incentivise daily office attendance. Don’t just go along with what the tech bigwigs are saying, or even humble managing directors at that. At the end of the day, the decision about what works best for your people and your business should be a considered one, but it’s yours to make.