Future proofing employee workplace engagement

Future proofing employee workplace engagement and the return to the office with flexible work.

Future proofing employee workplace engagement

By Josephine Simone and Dr Selvi Kannan

Despite the anticipated and long-awaited return to workplaces, many employees still desire to continue to engage remotely in some capacity. In the absence of existing guidelines, or consistency by all, each employer is faced with a new idealism and responsibility of determining or supporting their employees’ physical and remote presence. Moving on from the pandemic, work has brought new ways of thinking on the engagement with work.

This complex situation creates profound challenges for employers in relation to how they can potentially future proof their employees’ workplace engagement, both individually and collectively across multiple work settings. These challenges are further fuelled and driven by factors such as industry sector and occupation requirements, when determining the practicality of multiple work settings.

In breaking away from the traditionalism of work, characteristics of adaptability, flexibility and autonomy emerge as instrumental features in shaping future employee workplace engagement and optimal management of work time. The current working landscape is subject to continual change, disruption, uncertainty and unpredictability, harshly challenging traditional work conventions. Furthermore, for many employees, the forced experience of working from home during a pandemic brought to taste virtual connections, where the birth of a hybrid style of work connection is being seriously considered. In December 2021, The Australian Financial Review confirmed that 60 of Australia’s leading CEO’s support workplace flexibility and acknowledged that the new way of working will remain and that hybrid models will form part of this.

Research findings, which formed part of a doctoral study, into the career experiences of post-doctoral women working in STEM, included participants reflecting on their own personal experiences during COVID. These experiences varied, as they were dependant on the circumstances of each participant. It was evident that the impact of COVID on participants’ work was far greater on those who were based in Victoria, compared to participants in any other state, simply due to the multiple, extended lockdowns. Women working in STEM during these lockdowns, reported both positive and negative experiences associated with managing their circumstances as well as their time. There were newfound challenges associated with increased caring responsibilities, due to childcare centres closing and the need to home school children. These increased caring responsibilities needed to be juggled with continuing job responsibilities. In some instances, job responsibilities had been amended, due to the sudden reliance on online platforms which resulted in differing levels of productivity amongst participants. On the flipside however, the extended period of working from home presented potential opportunities for future flexibility, in relation to working and balancing work and life, as well as being more present at home and with family. Whilst discussing these experiences, participants were asked the following question:

“Do you think working from home will be a new normal?”

The candid reflections from most participants about their experiences of working from home during COVID, indicated that they perceived value in engaging in a mixture of both face-to-face and remote work engagement for their individual specific reasons.

Many of these women placed value on having a physical presence in the office and engaging face to face. This was for reasons of social interaction, such as the “water cooler conversation”, connectedness and relationships “that you don’t necessarily get on zoom” as well as networking, team building and relationship building. Other reasons for being physically present in the office included training, observing, supporting and managing junior staff members. There was also acknowledgement towards the completion of specific tasks that could only sufficiently be carried out in a face-to-face setting, such as scientific experiments and other lab related work. Working in the office was also seen as beneficial to remaining on colleagues’ radars, as well as being able to potentially access future work opportunities. Valid concerns were raised around engaging remotely in group meetings. One participant described this form of engagement as being an artform, to be able to bring people around the table and to make sure that everyone has a voice”. They further raised potential issues around the logistics of engaging remotely in group meetings, where some employees would be engaging remotely, and others would be engaging face-to-face. The findings from this study evidently suggest that there is still a place and a need to continue with the traditional work environment, where individuals are firstly, strongly seeking in person connectivity and secondly, to sufficiently support the completion of other fundamental work activities and tasks.

On the other hand, these women also placed value on remote work engagement, based on the convenience with balancing their commitments.  They realised that juggling their commitments such as drop offs and pickups, seemed to naturally fit into their work and life. The anecdotes from the women strongly suggested that this style of juggle fostered increased freedom and autonomy. The forced stay at home situation caused by the pandemic, allowed for a rethink of time use and waste and being present to build a strong life relationship.  Several women spoke on how they benefited on the time not spent on commuting to the office and other work-related travels. They also associated this commute and travel time by narrating as lost productivity. It was evident that the further their home and place of work was, the more inclined the women were to retain their remote working style. Interestingly, the lockdown forced employers to accept this form of working and saw an ease of pressure off employees to seek prior permission and justification of their need to work from home.

The voices of these women suggests that many are in a reflective rethink of their engagement of work, life and commitment. There is a pressing need for employers to consider what they need to do to future proof employee work engagement and assess the value, meaning and purpose of their employees working across multiple work settings. One full-time academic in a leadership position supported this view, highlighting “what is that value add that face to face brings and we haven’t had to define that before and I think we’ll need to define it now and make sure that when people, when colleagues come face to face, they’re coming face to face, so that value add, so that it’s meaningful and useful”.

As many employees are expected to commence returning to the office, this is an opportunity for conversations to be held about suitability of workplace (Kannan, 2016) for optimal performance. The findings from this study suggest that the type of work for women working in STEM for example, is an evident driver in determining their workplace. The unique circumstances of the pandemic have resulted in employee work engagement no longer being strongly cladded with traditionalist viewpoints. In the absence of precedence and lack of standardised guidelines, the mitigation that faces employers is their readiness and preparedness to continue to move away from the traditionally cladded workplace engagement and future proof work engagement to avoid a potential crisis on loss of talent.

Josephine Simone, Doctor of Business Administration candidate, Victoria University, is conducting a doctoral research project in the career breaks of women in STEM and has written this article with Dr Selvi Kannan, Academic & Course Chair Management & Innovation, Victoria University.


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