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Dear bosses, if you don’t trust your staff to WFH then the problem is you

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19 July 2023

There is one quick way to see if business leaders really trust their staff or whether they see them as just another widget in a production line: start a discussion about remote work.

Many business leaders who begrudgingly accepted working from home as a necessity during the pandemic – and who were thrilled to see revenue still generated despite restrictions – are now horrified to see how this new way of working has taken hold.

While the remote work debate has predictably been focused on productivity of employees, it is time to flip the focus, accept the new reality and ensure bosses can lead a remote workforce.

What has become clear is that those most uncomfortable with remote working are also those who believe that unless they can see the people they lead working, they are not too sure they are working at all. We’re now at a point, though, where we should take a breath before we throw out the flexibility we gained during the pandemic and attempt to return to a one size fits all approach to our working lives.

Just last week Jeff Kennett, for reasons which remain hard to understand, insisted anyone working from home should have their pay cut. And last month Elon Musk, long known for his anti-work from home views, questioned the morality of the “laptop class” mooching off employers while working from home. “Never mind the Great Resignation, get ready for the Great Return,” we heard from Dexus’s Kevin George, in April, no doubt concerned about his bottom line and the prospect of zombie offices.

Regardless of your views on remote work, let’s accept the way many of us now work has changed and will not return to pre-COVID days and ways. Yes, it was accelerated by the pandemic. But it was also fuelled by a significant shift in the workforce – and that shift has fuelled those who have finally been able to balance parenting, caring, and the various other challenges life throws our way – with work.

For years, employers promised they would take each person into account. “Bring your whole self to work,” we were told. But that promise was only practically enabled once the necessity for remote work took hold. Let’s not lose that now.

The most effective leaders understand that those they lead are more than just widgets, more than the output of their productivity. Instead of placing employee productivity front and centre, let’s focus on leaders trusting and super-powering their teams.

Anyone who has ever been in a toxic workplace knows that simply being in the same location as the people you work with is no guarantee of a sense of belonging. The best leaders trust their teams and know that whether they can physically see someone working is among the least important factors to being effective.

But leadership quality is hard to quantify and so, for all the talk of trust, respect and engagement, the remote work debate continues to defer to the figures.

WFH Research found that remote work improved productivity during the pandemic. But now their latest findings suggest fully remote work – when someone never comes into the office – is associated with a decline of about 10 per cent in productivity compared to fully in-person work. This is the finding that has made headlines around the world, including a view that remote work now has a target on its back.

But the same research also finds hybrid work – a combination of remote and in-person work – is associated with positive impacts on productivity. The researchers found hybrid work can actually improve employee recruitment and retention. In one study, those working just one day from home per week were 13 per cent more productive each day than their colleagues who spent five days in the office.

A knee-jerk reaction to significantly reduce or end access to remote work, particularly hybrid work, would be a mistake. Instead of focusing on the productivity of workers (and let’s face it, you can cut any data every which way, and you’ll get different results), let’s look at the quality of leaders.

Leading a remote flexible workforce is complex and requires leaders to be equally flexible in their thinking. There is simply no one-size-fits all approach. The Australian banking sector is a perfect example. NAB employees will now have working from home enshrined in their enterprise agreement, with staff able to request to work from home and management decisions to be weighted towards approval.

This comes on the back of the Commonwealth Bank mandating employees to spend at least 50 per cent of their monthly hours in the office – a decision now being challenged by the Financial Services Union over lack of consultation. And over at Westpac, the CEO has written to staff to set the expectation they come into the office two to three days per week.

Whatever your view on remote work, let’s agree on this. Employee productivity can’t be the only focus in this debate. Every employee is more than the sum of their work output. Modern leaders, who trust those they lead, get that. It is the quality of our leaders which will determine whether any workplace initiative succeeds. Let’s focus our efforts there. Workers need it, and employers will benefit too.

Kirstin Ferguson is a workplace expert and the author of Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership.

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