Office Not Required: The Age Services’ Inadvertent Innovation

4 years ago
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Be courteous
Everyone is a volunteer

Being rude
Slows people down

It takes time to get over
Feeling hurt, offended

Be courteous
It’s more efficient

Christopher Nailer, Palm Cards for Managing, 2020

In organisations that allow it, working remotely is something we plan for. With COVID-19, this work perk (or somewhat stigmatised work option) suddenly became something thousands of us had to do, unless you were a direct care worker, medical and allied health professional, or facility maintenance worker. 

For some, being away from the buzzing swarm of the office over the last few months has been an empowering opportunity to get into the ‘zone’, to finally complete meaningful work with limited interruptions, and to own your work schedule. 

For others, it’s been an experience in Zoom meeting fatigue, constant phone calls or expectations for real-time online check-ins, and in worse-case scenarios, being monitored remotely. However, to focus only on the negatives, and not give weight to the positive aspects of remote work would essentially be a potential opportunity missed for our industry.

Even with the potential negatives in mind, the present landscape around working remotely is pretty clear. From interactions innovAGEING has had with the industry during this pandemic, workers welcomed it, middle managers were reticent, and executives were reservedly open to the idea. COVID-19 made the consideration moot. 

Frederic Laloux in his book Reinventing Organizations characterises it as such:

“We happen to be in one of these transition periods where the old is starting to break down, but the new hasn’t taken shape yet. In these confusing times, some people double down on their existing perspectives and beliefs, trying to apply outdated solutions ever more frantically. Others, in increasing numbers, make the leap to a new perspective that allows them to seek solutions that were previously unavailable.” 

As pundits talk about the post-COVID world where there is no going back to business-as-usual, it’s worth looking at remote work—the potential positive workforce benefits it may bring to our industry, and as a drawcard to compete for talent from other industries. 

When we consider the case against remote work, the primary reasons relate to management concerns regarding inability to monitor staff doing work, and difficulties in having face-to-face meetings. It’s an unevolved top-down mindset harkening back to another era. 

Fast forward to the present tense, management is still about being ‘busy managing’, and the primary mechanisms for managing, are meetings. Consider for a moment that an unnecessary or ineffective one hour meeting involving eight people results in an eight hour productivity loss for that organisation, it’s not rocket science to understand why this is a clear source of inefficiency. 

What we’ve seen thus far through the present pandemic is an agile age services industry that is doing a good job in looking after older Australians and workers. There is much for us to learn and reflect on, and the present state of remote work in our industry and the prospective benefits of this should be included in these learnings. 

To this end, here are a few remote working lessons from innovAGEING’s experience during this time:

  • Slowdown the transition back to office work. What we’re experiencing is not the full version of remote work. As social distancing rules loosen, schools re-open, and we move beyond panic-mode, we’ll get a truer sense of remote work’s potential and benefits. 
  • There is no real difference between managing in an office and managing remotely. It’s essentially about facilitating an environment for staff to do great work. This means creating an environment where staff schedules are as free as possible so they can focus on getting work done. 
  • Unless in a front-facing role, there is a risk of trying to replicate a physical office work environment in a remote work context, resulting in unnecessary over-communication—perhaps from management fearing that staff are slacking off, and staff concerns that their work isn’t visible to management.
  • If you’re a leader, let staff get their work done. Constantly pulling staff away from work on ‘urgent’ issues with ad hocideas adds to staff stress levels at a time when many feel insecure about their jobs. 
  • Limit the use of shared calendars. If you want someone’s time, you need to ask for it.  
  • Remote work should be considered another element of work-life, not just a perk or a nice-to-have. We need to de-gender, de-parent, and de-age remote work. 

Ultimately, if working remotely means that staff can find ‘flow’ and pride in their work, and providers can attract the best talent and increase productivity and job satisfaction—this is a strong position to be in as a sector. 

As we move away from panic-mode, and consider our sector’s post-COVID next normal, it’s worthwhile reminding ourselves that this is not the beginning of the end, but more so, the end of the beginning.   

Merlin Kong is Head of innovAGEING, Australia’s national innovation network for the age services industry. 

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