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COVID-19 changing the future of workplace.

Thousands of Australian businesses and their workers are now part of what some call the ‘world’s largest work-from-home experiment’. From China to Europe, the United States to Australia, from Google and Facebook, to organisations right across Australia, millions of workers are now ‘WFH’ – working from home. Increasingly sophisticated digital technologies such as video conferencing and messaging platforms, supported by traditional email, are enabling us to perform office work effectively from anywhere. 

As terrible as it is, the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating our transition to the future of work. What does this mean for the future of the workplace? We advocate a human-centred workplace ecosystem integrating physical and virtual worlds, which focuses on bringing people together and supporting activities humans do well. 

In this article, we provide business leaders with some insights on how to reimagine the workplace, on the culture challenge they face, and the guiding principles that will underpin the transition to this workplace of the future.

First, let’s look at the transformation of work due to digital technologies, then we discuss what this means for Australian workplaces, informed by new research we report here for the first time. 

Long before COVID-19 and WFH en masse, digital technologies had already started to disrupt work in two other significant ways. Ever more powerful AI and robotics are automating routine and predictable tasks. In parallel, digital platforms are becoming remarkably efficient and effective at reorganising less predictable work to lower cost labour solutions. Think freelancing and gig work. 

Right now, because of isolation measures, employers around the country have thousands of square metres of expensive fit out lying fallow. Yet for many, their businesses continue to operate at reasonable productivity levels through WFH arrangements. 

More and more of the tasks that could once only be done in a physical office are now being done from anywhere, by anyone, or by any algorithm. No doubt when workers return to the office, many CEOs will question whether they are extracting the best value from their physical space and what the ongoing role of digital work and collaboration will be. For instance, there’s likely an approaching use-by date for repetitive tasks done in the physical office, especially those performed at a computer.

How can the enormous investment in workplace design be strategic, evidence-based, and de-risked?

In our recent video, Unpacking the Pandemic: Deloitte’s COVID conversations, we explain the role of the workplace ecosystem.As the economy fundamentally transforms, there will be no shortage of the need to create new products, services and solutions for customers, and the business models that support them. Humans excel in navigating uncertainty and complexity, and we do it especially well when we come together to collaborate. More than ever, the physical workplace will be about essentially human activities: collaborating, connecting, social interactions, creative collisions, innovating, exploring and learning – supported and augmented by digital technologies.

In late November, 1060 working Australians aged from 18 to over 65 years (in a nationally representative sample across the economy) were surveyed by Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for the New Workforce. This includes those working in physical and virtual environments. This timing helpfully establishes a baseline for measuring the business as usual (pre-COVID-19) Australian workplace culture.

Workers were asked about the values of their current workplace, according to the table. We then looked specifically at workers in the knowledge sector of the Australian economy – which is the most digitally disrupted sector with the highest prevalence of office work. This sector includes industries such as information, media, telecoms, professional services, banking and financial services.

Across each of our four measures of workplace values – collaboration (43 per cent), generational diversity (35 per cent), curiosity (35 per cent), and entrepreneurial mindset (28 per cent) – only a minority of respondents agreed that their own workplace prioritised features we would consider quintessentially human. To be expected, proportions were slightly higher in the knowledge sector, but still less than 50 per cent on all four measures. This suggests we have a long way to go regarding establishing more human-centred workplaces.

We believe businesses must start by thinking about their workplace ecosystem – integrating physical and digital worlds – from a human connection perspective, where workers and collaborators come together, including with customers and clients. Some principles that should guide design of the ecosystem:

  • Workplace wellbeing must be front and centre, first from a mental health perspective but also to ensure employees can thrive and grow in an inclusive culture.
  • The continuity of experience between both physical and virtual spaces is paramount.
  • A sense of place is essential to develop community as well as productive everyday routines.
  • Informal and formal collaborative spaces will be increasingly valued over individual workstations.
  • Learning through and with others at work in collaborative settings is ideal, which can be supported by rapid upskilling for individuals through content as required.
  • Rapid testing and evidence-based piloting of new spaces and technologies will determine what works.

Workplace strategy and design are critical. Not only does better design support the values, culture and work activities essential for creating value, but it will lead to better space utilisation that support higher value tasks.

Developing an ecosystem where data drives the decision making for the design of the spaces helps create places for people and teams. It also allows us to continually adapt the spaces as the nature of work evolves.

In a world already undergoing immense change, fuelled by macro-economic drivers and an explosion in technology, COVID-19 is accelerating the transformation of how and where we work. Now, more than ever, we must de-risk investment in workplace strategy and design by focusing more on the work humans do best, and the culture and values that support it.

Sean Gallagher, Director, Centre for the New Workforce, Swinburne University of Technology Robbie Robertson, Virtual Office Managing Partner, Deloitte Australia

For more on the virtual office, watch Robbie Robertson and Rob Hillard on Unpacking the Pandemic – Deloitte’s COVID conversations video series.