We’ve seen recent media coverage about some high-profile Companies particularly in the tech sector getting their employees back to the office. There is even research supporting these moves, suggesting that remote workers are less productive overall. Since many of these stories are from overseas, HRNZ wanted to check what’s happening here in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Our quick survey “Remote Work – Future or Past?” was open from 8-15 August 2023 and received 250 responses from HRNZ members and other HR professionals.
What did the survey tell us?
We started by asking about current policy settings for remote working. The two prevalent options amongst our respondents were- a policy that allows for remote working but within certain parameters [such as anchor days in the office] or a policy that allows for remote working in which employees have discretion in home vs office days. Just over 70% of respondents have one of these two policy settings in place, indicating that remote working is very much alive and well in New Zealand.
Interestingly though a little over 30% of our respondents have stated that there are moves to encourage employees back to the office. This is countered slightly by 20% of organisations who are increasing remote working options. Only one respondent reported cancelling remote work altogether!
The two main reasons for getting employees back to the office related to team collaboration challenges [66%] and impacts on organisational culture [65%]. Management preferences [47%] and training of new team members [41%] are also key drivers for reducing remote work arrangements. Despite what we are hearing from overseas, less than 20% of our respondents cite the productivity of remote workers as a reason to review policies.
It's clear from our respondents that remote working is still seen as a key to attracting and retaining talent [80%] and supporting employee well-being and work/life balance [89%]. Again despite overseas reports, a significant number of our respondents [40%] say productivity gains are key benefits of remote working and a little over [20%] are seeing cost reductions from these policies.
Our respondents also indicated that there were more strings to their bow when it comes to flexible working. Flexible working times [85%] was the most common element of a flexible work policy, closely followed by part time hours [73%]. A number of respondents have options for a compressed work week [30%] and some also offer a four-day week [25%].
Hear from the flexible work expert
HRNZ caught up with flexi-work expert and author of “Flexperts” https://www.gillianbrookes.co.nz/ to get her views on our survey results.
HRNZ: “What interested you most about these survey results?”
“I was interested to see that most employers see this as an employee benefit for worklife balance and wellbeing. While it is that, it is also as much about productivity too, but less than half see it that way. I'd love for this productivity driver to also have equal footing. We've got a big productivity problem in NZ and flex is such a compelling way to support a more productive economy.
One quote surprised me a bit though, which was about hybrid work simply being a cost that only benefits employees so it's being phased out. That concerns me, as our businesses are grappling to find a way forward and then instead seek a way back. I was pleased to see our stats still up there at around 40% offering some form of remote or hybrid work. That's consistent with other stats, like Jarrod Haar's work last year. So this shows that most employers are seeking a way forward, not back, which has to be the future. That's what all the trends point to, both here and overseas. This isn’t going away.”
HRNZ: “Are the results generally in keeping with what you’re seeing happening in NZ organisations?”
“Absolutely, it reflects what I see every day. It was a good response in such a short time. One thing that stood out to me as something I hear so often was the inconsistency of application of flex, depending on leader preferences. This is where I really want to see a big change, with support and empathy, not by making leaders wrong. Comments in the survey point to a lack of training, support, education etc for leaders. One thing I often reflect on is that leaders have old tools in a new world and they don't stand up to the job anymore. We need to make it easy for leaders to manage flex, otherwise we will really limit the potential benefits to our organisations. We see that in the drivers for flex, with the second highest reason being to attract and retain staff. I see this as a reactive reason for flex. One that is susceptible to melt away when our labour market dynamics shift. At the moment, employees have more bargaining power, because we've got relatively low unemployment. If that changes, will we see our approach to flex change too? In a minority of organisations, particularly when I've been overseas, I see a flex connection to their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategy. This is a much more powerful reason to focus on flex, that stands the test of time to meet a strategic goal. Other reasons I'm also seeing emerge include contribution to Carbon Zero commitments, which again creates a compelling case for flex beyond our immediate labour market dynamics.”
HRNZ: “Two of the main reasons given for reducing WFH arrangements are problems with team collaboration and organisational culture. How have you seen organisations tackling these problems?”
“These are easily the main two issues I hear from leaders too. No doubt at all. In fact it's been the consistent issue since I did my own research in 2021. We've got to find a way through this.
What I advise organisations to do here is to get better at collective decision making about which days we will be where and what work we will prioritise on those days. It's about seeing 'me & we' as a healthy ecosystem, not a parasitic one, which is what it feels like sometimes at the moment. We need to make sure the individual is getting more of what they need from flex, while also upholding the needs of the wider team and organisation.
Working from home carries risks: isolation, lower levels of creativity/innovation and reduced career development opportunities. Those first two are really what's driving senior leaders to want people back in the office more and I get it. To resolve the issues and build more connection, collaboration and have a healthy culture, we can't do it alone, by making independent work choices day-to-day. We need to join up with others to make sure that the days we come to the shared space, we can connect with our team, make time to share ideas, especially with those beyond our immediate team - those colliding perspectives (not the overlapping perspectives we get within our team) are required if we are going to continue to innovate and grow our long term productivity.
Hybrid and remote work exacerbate pre-existing challenges in our organisations that we used to refer to as silos. Now there is ever less opportunity for us to connect and collaborate, it has amplified that older problem. With better joint decision making and understanding each others' perspectives, we can absolutely overcome it.”
HRNZ: “We had lots of comments in the survey, what was your favourite?”
“Haha, so many to choose from! I loved the "workcation" form of flex. I think it points to an emerging trend, which is flexi-leave. A few people referenced it in the 'other' forms of flex they offer. I think we will see this continue to rise. “
HRNZ: “Finally, what do you say – remote work, the future or the past?”
“I say, hybrid work is absolutely part of our future. Fully remote work though, no, it isn't something we're going to see take off in a massive way. We want to belong, connect, collaborate and co-create in our work. We also want the short-term productivity of getting stuff done when we're working from home and the personal flexibility that comes with that. A challenge persists for geographically dispersed teams and workforces, because that has a lot of the friction of fully remote work. Even most fully remote companies bring people together in person regularly, at least once a month, according to the US studies from WFHresearch. “
Thanks to Gillian for her thoughts. HRNZ definitely sees remote working as part of our future and predicts that new technologies will gradually open up remote working as an opportunity for a greater number of workers.
HRNZ’s Digital Workplaces Forum in November will look at ways in which other technological innovations are impacting our workplaces and how these might evolve in the future and will include more discussions about remote working.