The global pandemic didn’t just spark a discussion about working from home, it acted as a catalyst for a much broader conversation on workplace culture, Rhonda Brighton-Hall says.
Flexible working arrangements where people worked a day or more from home existed well before the global pandemic. Since 2006, the four-days-in-the-office week has been establishing itself as a common occurrence, especially among white-collar workers.
But when the global coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, everybody who could, had to work from home – all of the time.
The result was somewhat chaotic, Rhonda Brighton-Hall, Chief Executive Officer of Making Work Absolutely Human (mwah), a corporate culture consultancy firm, says.
“There has been a pretty consistent growth in four-day working weeks, portfolio careers and work from home since 2006, with the four-day working weeks actually starting from 1978. So we’ve gradually been moving into these things,” Brighton-Hall says.
“But of course in April 2020, we moved to it in quite a chaotic, random way. And we didn’t have much time to think about it. Rather than the thoughtful: ‘How would we like this to work and how does it work best?’ everyone was simply asked to go home for a while. And then it became a long while.”
Brighton-Hall will speak at the FEAL Annual Conference 2023 on August 3 in Sydney on the topic, “The 2023 Shift: From survival to leading the rethinking and redesign of work”.
To a degree, she says it is still early days in assessing how organisations were impacted by the disruption of the pandemic and how it will affect corporate cultures in the long run. But the question on whether work arrangements could be more tailored to the employee had been asked and there was no turning back.
At the beginning of COVID, some people and organisations rushed to say: ‘We should never come back to the office. Let's all be free and work from our dining room tables for the rest of our lives’. “Well, that probably wasn’t the longest-term way to look at options
“There was a very little rethinking of how we might want to work or how we work best, or how that could be rearranged to better suit individuals and organisations,” Brighton-Hall says.
“At the beginning of COVID, some people and organisations rushed to say: ‘We should never come back to the office. Let’s all be free and work from our dining room tables for the rest of our lives.’ Well, that probably wasn’t the longest-term way to look at options.”
Most organisations have realised that connection between workers is important in maintaining affinity with both the work itself and colleagues within the company. Most people also indicated they prefer to work at least some days of the week in the office, primarily to maintain relationships with their co-workers and customers.
But at the same time, it became obvious face-to-face contact hours were not required in the same way or degree as had been common practice before, while the watercooler didn’t quite turn out to have the mythological powers of information transfer that had been ascribed to it.
The conversation today is much more about giving people choice, Brighton-Hall says.
“It’s best to say something like: ‘How is your work done best? How many days do you want to work at home and how many days do you want to do in the office? And which days would you prefer?’ This way you start to give people different choices other than: ‘Do you want to commute or not?’” she says.
“What is most interesting is that the people who worked more from home pre-COVID were the people in managerial and professional roles. If you had agency over your job or agency over the way you worked, then you tended to choose to work remotely or under a hybrid system.
“But administrative jobs, tech jobs, all those sorts of jobs that sat at a desk, which could be done anywhere, those jobs did not go hybrid or remote until COVID hit.”
Yet, she also points out working from home will only ever be relevant to a subsection of the working population, even if it is no longer the domain of the managerial class.
After all, a significant number of people require personal interaction with people to do their jobs.
“There’s still 9.2 million people in Australia who have to go and do their job with somebody else. Those people fight fires or birth babies or make coffee or drive the tram. There’s a lot of them,” Brighton-Hall says.
“So when we talk about those people who can choose to work away, you’re talking about the rest of the group, which is predominantly white-collar knowledge workers.
“For those people, I think the model will start to evolve where people can say: ‘How should we do our work? What’s the best way to do our work?’ At the moment, it is still mostly an individual conversation – ‘What do I need?’ – but gradually it’s becoming more about what do ‘we’ need, not just what ‘I’ need.”
The debate around working from home has also acted as a catalyst for a broader discussion about workplace culture, she says. People have come to increasingly realise this is an area that has clear processes in place that can be measured and understood.
For example, areas like decision-making, collaboration and information flows can all be understood and mapped by organisational network analysis.
In interacting with clients, mwah, therefore, avoids getting bogged down in a discussion about mere opinions and focuses on the organisational structure as a complex system.
“We don’t use sentiment; I think that is important. We don’t say: ‘What are your thoughts on this?’ We say instead: ‘Who are the people that coach you? Who are the people that solve problems when things get stuck?’ And they tell you,” she says.
“So you start to see how decisions are made, how risks are managed. And then we do qualitative work, have a conversation and look at the stories and how it is all coming together.”
Brighton-Hall isn’t just called in when things go wrong. She estimates only 30 per cent of her work is with companies that are in trouble or where the culture has sustained a level of damage. The rest comprises organisations that simply want to do better, while mergers and acquisitions also form an important part of mwah’s advisory business.
The key to success is creating an environment where people want to work to the best of their abilities.
“What we try to do is understand what makes people go the extra mile. When people feel like they belong, they’ll be more confident, they’ll contribute more wholeheartedly, they’ll give you their best ideas, they’ll collaborate more openly and they won’t hang on to information,” Brighton-Hall says.
You need to make sure it is foundationally safe, both psychologically safe and physically safe, and that it is fair. These things are foundational
To create the right circumstance requires a number of fundamental conditions to be in place. For example, an organisation needs to be a safe environment for all workers.
“You need to make sure it is foundationally safe, both psychologically safe and physically safe, and that it is fair. These things are foundational,” Brighton-Hall says.
“And then if you want to get things working really well for everybody, then make sure the work is purposeful and everybody’s contribution is linked to that purpose.”
After purposeful work, relationships need to work well, starting with respect, trust and general decency towards each other. Work is a team effort, and everyone needs to feel part of it.
“Then you need agency and an expectation that you will act as an equal adult. And then the final element is accountability. You’re accountable, not just to yourself, but to everybody else who’s there as well. You’re accountable to each other, to bring your best towards the collective effort,” Brighton-Hall says.
When things go wrong, it often traces back to one or more of these fundamental conditions lacking in an organisation, whether that is the lack of accountability or the absence of a purpose.
There are a couple of other things to look for in good culture.
“Leadership matters, so absent leadership is a key one. If you create a leadership vacuum, a failure to make decisions, or to create a great environment, then that can be very bad,” Brighton-Hall says.
“For example, if someone who doesn’t know how to lead, or isn’t prepared to lead, steps into such a role, then very quickly nobody really knows where you’re headed. It can get wild, fast.
“Letting bad behaviour go unchecked for a really long period of time will also set a low bar and people will know. They will ask: ‘Why are you taking me to task for doing it when everyone does it?’”
Then there are simple failure in practices. Lack of robust recruitment practices is a common one. This can allow the wrong person to enter the organisation and when they do, the culture starts to suffer rapidly.
“If you get a bad person, or the wrong person, in your organisation, then they can cause enormous damage very quickly, and so your ability to recruit well and to define expectations clearly, so that you don’t end up with the wrong people behaving badly, is very important,” Brighton-Hall says.
And all of those elements are measurable. Standards can and should be set. Aspirations, and milestones towards achieving them can be tracked. In short, culture is not an opinion. It is the way things are done, or should be done, around here.
Rhonda Brighton-Hall, Chief Executive Officer of Making Work Absolutely Human (mwah), will speak at the FEAL Annual Conference 2023 on Thursday, August 3, at the Sheraton Grand Sydney Hyde Park in Sydney on the topic: ‘The 2023 Shift: From survival to leading the rethinking and redesign of work’.
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