By Dian Tjondronegoro and Christhina Candido

This piece is an original by the authors and presented by Griffith Business School.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most companies worldwide have made a sudden shift to a new working landscape, where working from home has become the most viable options to maintain productivity while adhering to the physical distancing restrictions. Online and digital technologies have changed the way we connect, collaborate, work, and socialise.

Thanks to Internet connectivity, online presence, and digital business tools, many businesses have been able to manage the shift to flexible work seamlessly. 

Before the pandemic-induced lockdown, most businesses have experimented with the flexible working environment, Activity-Based-Working (ABW) and Work-From-Home (WFH) policies (Engelen, L., Chau et al., 2019). We have studied the critical drivers behind workers' satisfaction and perceived productivity and health in open workspaces. The analysis uses a total of 8,827 post-occupancy evaluation surveys conducted in 61 offices in Australia (Candido et al. 2019). We found the most crucial factors to workers' high satisfaction and perceived productivity are spatial comfort, indoor air quality, building image and maintenance, noise distraction and privacy, visual comfort, personal control, and connection to the outdoor environment.  Some studies have noted a generally negative perception and response to open-plan offices due to ill-designed open spaces that are unable to support workers properly (Morrison, R.L. et al., 2020). The rise of workplace experience and the value placed by the millennial workforce on flexibility was already changing the design of offices. This transformation is likely to be pushed further due to COVID-19. 

The challenge for business leaders to fully implement flexible work is maintaining the traditional layers of workforce management: place, time, role, and leave (Meta5, 2020). The sudden large-scale shift to flexible working has opened up the opportunity for business leaders and managers to make a transformational change towards a more sustainable work environment. This article explores the productivity and wellbeing considerations for incorporating digitised workspace as part of the new normal for flexible work, combining with ABW and WFH.

Drawing from the lessons learned during the COVID-19 lockdown, we will explore:

1) The opportunities from the digitised workspace, and

2) The challenges in managing flexible work that supports productivity and wellbeing.

The aim is to inform and empower business leaders to develop a strategy for implementing productive yet flexible work environments for a more sustainable future of work.

We found the most crucial factors to workers' high satisfaction and perceived productivity are spatial comfort, indoor air quality, building image and maintenance, noise distraction and privacy, visual comfort, personal control, and connection to the outdoor environment.

The opportunities from digitised workspace

Digital capability is the term we use to describe the skills and attitudes that individuals and organisations need if they are to thrive in today's technological world. At an individual level, we define digital capabilities as those which equip someone to live, learn and work in a digital society.

Businesses that adopt digital technologies to maintain productivity need to use a variety of techniques appropriately and effectively in different contexts.

Online presence through a website and social media is the primary requirement for conducting business, interacting with and supporting the end-users, as well as managing sales and transactions. For critical services, such as healthcare and social assistance, an online presence was essential to promote public health and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. For some sectors like education, training, arts, hospitality, and tourism, an online presence was essential to sustain business activities during the lockdown. For the internal operation of businesses, workers can use the Internet to access digital business tools from anywhere for communication, collaboration, and management (of projects, finance, human resource, stock and inventory, supply chain and logistics, customer relationship). Before the pandemic, some businesses were still reluctant to entirely rely on these tools for digitising the workspace, due to cybersecurity concerns, digital literacy, and the difficulties in providing online tech support for the staff. The large-scale lockdown has pushed businesses to make an immediate shift towards digitised workspace and innovate their product and service offering.

Online meeting tools, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, have seen the highest increase of usage and exposure during the lockdown. Suddenly most people and businesses realise that they are more connected than ever with other people around the globe. People suddenly became more accessible, as they do not need to spend hours, or even days in some cases, to travel for connecting and collaborating with colleagues. Asynchronous communication enabled people to have more agency about when/where to work. For the health sectors, these online meeting tools have helped to deliver care to broader and distant communities and reduce risks of contagion. The combination of digital business tools, asynchronous communications, and backbone office has enabled workers to maintain productivity during the pandemic, albeit the challenges associated with the sudden shift to WFH and ABW. People suddenly realise that they can adapt to the tools fast enough, while at the same time developing their digital capability to become more future-ready.

The shift towards online business and digitalised business was generally seen as inevitable, but the COVID-19 pandemic has helped to fast forward the journey by at least 10 years. People have somehow leapfrogged their fear and scepticism from the uncertainties over risks and challenges if their business and work were shifted fully to online. The new normal will undoubtedly benefit from the digitised workspace as a way to promote efficiency and provide opportunities for a more inclusive workforce. By saving time from travelling to and from office, working parents can use the extra time gained to better juggle between home and work commitments. For some people, WFH has allowed them to enjoy more home-cooked meals, occasional walks to local shops, walking their dogs, and exercise more regularly at their leisure, all of which help to promote their wellbeing. For others, WFH is not possible due to a non-conducive environment and personal circumstances. Therefore, university managers have factored in WFH challenges into an expected variation of productivity for most of 2020.

In the new normal, ABW based design of office spaces is likely to be influenced by the newly acquired confidence to use digital business tools to work in different settings.

Challenges in managing productivity and wellbeing of digitised workspace

Learning from the lessons of flexible working arrangements during the COVID-19 lockdown will help managers and workers to find mutually suitable solutions. For example, there has been an increase of reported psychological stress and divorce filing (Commonwealth Media Release, 2020). This phenomenon could be primarily caused by the increased pressure from juggling between work and childminding, homeschooling, and the concerns over health and socio-economic uncertainties. On the other hand, even after the social distancing restrictions are eased, some people may prefer to continue working from home to benefit from all the comfort and privacy of home-office and still use the office space to connect and collaborate with co-workers and clients. Hence, the "new normal" post lockdown for flexible work should be designed on a “case-by-case” basis, combining WFH, ABW, physical and digitised workspace effectively to promote productivity and wellbeing.

Figure 1. Post-COVID-19 Flexible Working Arrangement

The "new normal" post lockdown for flexible work should be designed on a “case-by-case” basis, combining WFH, ABW, physical and digitised workspace effectively to promote productivity and wellbeing.

The first challenge is managing based on trust, which means that workers can make decisions on the place and time to perform tasks and achieve a set of outcomes based on their assigned role and take the responsibility to manage their leave. The notion of “leader as a coach” (Ibarra, H., Scoular, A., 2019), which is becoming more widely adopted in large organisations, promotes the concept of shared decision making when it comes to managing the nature of work as long as the job is completed and achieving the outcomes. One of the critical ingredients for leading a productive team is to focus on the dynamics of the team instead of the mechanics (Leading Teams). As long as a team shares a shared vision and purpose, and agree on the required level of performance and deadlines, each individual should be trusted to have the flexibility to manage the work and be accountable for the delivery quality and timeline. Project and organisation managers can adopt many existing project management and collaboration functionalities to help with leading team and work. Therefore, it is crucial for business managers and project leaders to continually learn the latest tools and tailor them to their team’s dynamics and mechanics.

The second challenge is promoting a distributed sense of work-life balance to maintain productivity and wellbeing. Workers need to understand that they need to take breaks and look after themselves. As long as there is a trust established in performing and achieving the tasks within the required timeline, then each person should take the lead in proposing the best opportunities for taking leave. The managers' role should be of a coach, seeing the big picture, and help to synergise individual's plans and ensure that the common goal is achieved. Strategies like job sharing, staggered start-finish, travel while working, compressed week, and time-in-lieu, should be explored to find the right balance for the individuals and the team collectively. Managers may adopt cloud-based file sharing, asynchronous chats, and online meetings to support flexible work arrangements that would work for the team’s work-life balance. The most glaring risk of digitised workspace is the need for observing availability so that people can be fully “signed-off” and “away” from work, and not “on-call” at all times. The role of managers as a coach is crucial to ensure staff are not at overcapacity and promote flexible work arrangements. Home and parenting duties should no longer be associated with a particular gender, and likewise, workers with school-age children should not be disadvantaged. Moreover, people should not feel pressured to work beyond capacity over a prolonged period, which puts their productivity and wellbeing unsustainable. In short, it is time to move away from a traditional 9-5 "presence" based workplace and embrace a blended approach that is more inclusive, better for the environment and people.

Acknowledgement: the first author would like to thank Rosemary Stockdale and Naomi Birdthistle for their inputs for defining digital capability in businesses.

References

Candido, C., Chakraborty, P., Tjondronegoro, D., 2019. The Rise of Office Design in High-Performance, Open-Plan Environments. Buildings 9, 100. https://doi.org/10.3390/buildings9040100

Engelen, L., Chau, J., Young, S., Mackey, M., Jeyapalan, D., Bauman, A., 2019. Is activity-based working impacting health, work performance and perceptions? A systematic review. Building Research & Information 47, 468–479. https://doi.org/10.1080/09613218.2018.1440958

Morrison, R.L., Smollan, R.K., 2020. Open plan office space? If you’re going to do it, do it right: A fourteen-month longitudinal case study. Applied Ergonomics 82, 102933. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apergo.2019.102933

Meta5, 2020. The post-COVID-19 Workspace: What will it look like, and how can companies make it a success? https://www.meta5group.com/the-post-covid-19-workspace-what-will-it-look-like-and-how-can-companies-make-it-a-success/ (accessed 6.26.20).

Commonwealth Media Release, 2020. Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia launch COVID-19 List to deal with urgent parenting disputes. http://www.familycourt.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/fcoaweb/about/news/mr260420 (accessed 6.26.20).

Ibarra, H., Scoular, A., 2019. The Leader as Coach. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-leader-as-coach (accessed 6.26.20)

Leading Teams, Our High Performance Model. https://www.leadingteams.net.au/about-us/our-leadership-model/ (accessed 6.26.20).