Blended environments and the future of work wellbeing
At Techweek’s Future of Wellbeing at Work panel, experts from the Auckland University of Technology discuss how we all can adjust to balanced ways of working.
Blue Skype thinking sessions, addressing the elephant in the Zoom, and a hui becoming a Tui on Microsoft Teams – all these terms (and more) have emerged from our new Working from Home culture.
During Techweek’s Future of Wellbeing at Work seminar, these phrases create a dialogue around our new normal. As we emerge on the other side of all-day video conferences and virtual reporting, it’s time to reassess remote digital solutions, and the impact they are having on our physical and mental wellbeing.
Rosanne Ellis, head of AUT’s Research and Innovation Office, says she receives various calls from international research institutes seeing New Zealand as an interesting case study, thanks to our rapid response to Covid-19. This is an excellent time for businesses to do their own on-the-ground research – trying out new working arrangements and finding what works best for their corporate culture.
But how does a company set-up a successful flexible working environment? A good place to start is asking staff. Ellis says involving your team in the decision-making process opens up communications channels, engages with individual needs and creates a high level of trust. “As a manager, from my experience, one of the key things with your staff is understanding that everyone is an individual with different needs,” she says. “This is the new normal; we’re all experimenting.”
Galia Barhava-Monteith, psychologist by training and AUT’s knowledge mobilisation advisor, suggests mana-enhancing blended work environments – which have inclusive online and physical spaces and a common goal. “What I found was when everyone was online people felt a sense of connectivity. Everyone was on the same footing. It’s when you moved to a blended space that some people feel isolated because if you sit in your own office and everybody’s in a room, you feel somewhat excluded from the discussion that happens between people,” she explains. “With a higher purpose, it’s making sure that everyone is clear on what is to be done.”
Of course, blended working environments, and the technology that facilitates this, have been around for a long time. Now the barriers are broken down, there is bound to be more remote working, says AUT’s Professor of Human Resource Management Jarrod Harr. “It’s important to recognise it won’t suit every employee,” he adds. “[Recognise] the importance of having activity in person together in a workplace, to keep connections both within teams and with clients and customers.”
For Haar, a four-day working week – reducing time at work to 80 per cent, but maintaining 100 per cent of productivity and pay – can help with the balance. In his research, he has seen productivity remain unchanged during a four-day working week, but customer service, creativity and team interaction increase. “If we can get that balance right, that gives extra time for people’s wellbeing,” he says. “Now would be a lovely time for companies to look to embrace a four-day working week.”
If you are setting-up virtual conferences and meetings, it is vital to learn the tools and create psychological safety upfront, says Barhava-Monteith. She suggests asking everyone to come to the meeting with their videos on, to ensure members feels comfortable and equitable. “The biggest challenge for those of us who run groups or facilitate is to really learn how to use the online environment better, not to exhaust everyone else who is on the call,” she says. “The most important thing is to check on people and be very clear that things may change day-to-day.”
As well as psychological considerations, managers must consider if a worker has enough space to work in their home and whether they are safe. “There is another really important thing for women, which is something that I worked with throughout the lockdown period, and that is instances of abuse in the home,” says Barhava-Monteith. “That could be something very delicate that needs to be very carefully monitored by managers and organisations.”
This adds to the complex changing roles of managers, and good communication channels should allow space for them to be of help, if need. “The key is to keep those channels open and not to assume because you have got a good work-life environment where you can work for home quite easily, that it’s the same for everyone else,” adds Barhava-Monteith.
For AUT’s Director Of Health, Safety and Wellbeing Dave Pinchen, our lockdown experience proves that trust can be built in changing working conditions. When it comes to ensuring workers are safe at home more generally, managers can normalise the conversation about risk assessment. After all, we do it every day when we cross the road or walk up the stairs. “If you can normalise health and safety and wellbeing as a normal part of life, rather than an addition… that is something that’s going to help us move forward.”