As companies look to reduce their office footprints, what does the future of working from home look like?

We started the year with a resurgence of posts on LinkedIn about research findings that highlighted the benefits of individual offices over open-plan workspaces. Skipping forward to August, the language has shifted to some describing offices as a relic of the past. 

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by surprise. The upheaval of our normal lives has meant that much of the business world has had to adapt at a blistering pace too. 

The trend towards flexibility and remote working has continued to grow over the past 15 years with Europe and the US previously leading the way, but in the face of a global pandemic for those who were able to pivot to a virtual workforce, the if/how/when debate quickly evaporated in the face of ‘now’. 

It’s clear that this trend is bad for commercial landlords, but there are many positive indicators that working from home can have a number of positive outcomes for employers and employees. 

So how can companies, and employees, thrive in this new world of virtual work? 

Are people productive working from home?

One of the traditional critiques of virtual work is that employees are slacking off, the alternate being that the ‘busy-ness’ visible in an office equals productiveness.  

This pessimism could not be further from the truth, a finding which is not only good news for businesses but for employees too. The research overwhelmingly tells us that people are more productive working from home. In a recent study of 5,000 workers across five countries, workers felt less stressed and got more done than they could in an office environment. 

Setting aside the recent experiences of those juggling homeschooling whilst also working from home, workers, in particular, reported increased levels of productivity resulting from no commute, with many also feeling happier because of the additional time they were able to spend with their families or on leisure pursuits. 

I’m fortunate to live within walking distance of the OpenLearning office and my daughter’s school, but the shift to all team members working from home has resulted in productivity benefits such as: team members being more refreshed from not having to commute, a more conscious approach to meeting schedules and agendas to avoid teleconference fatigue, and efficiencies for the team members who pre COVID-19 were often out of the office at face-to-face meetings which required factoring in travel time.  

Whilst being able to track and measure productivity within businesses is important, combined with culture and organisational theory grounding, the jury is in; when employees are given agency, freedom, and are empowered to do their best work, both their productivity and engagement soars. The change in location as to where that work occurs is secondary to the trust and support bestowed. 

Virtual leadership & company culture

When we work from home, it’s true that we can lack the camaraderie of our peers and the presence of our leaders. For some, this is a relief, but in general, the question is whether it is a conducive working arrangement for building a strong and cohesive company culture? 

It’s a known fact that when a leader is absent for extended periods, their team suffers, and so does company culture. Considering the full gamut of ‘readiness’ that businesses were in for their staff to move to a work from home model, it’s fair to say that virtual leadership and fostering the company culture requires some adaptations if the increased productivity is to be maintained in the medium to long-term. 

For OpenLearning, our approach to leadership during COVID-19 is much akin to our approach to learning – one size does not (and should not) fit all. As such, different techniques have been tried and amended as needed for each team – from daily stand-ups for our Learning Services team who are working on a range of projects at the moment, more regular 1:1’s for our Partnerships team who are generally more social personalities, through to virtual ‘drop-in/coffee’ sessions with the CEO each Wednesday afternoon. 

At a whole organisation level, structured monthly town halls have continued as usual, and cross team collaboration has been sustained via a range of tools and processes. Digging deeper though, sharing of common experiences with the team about what our ‘working from home’ reality is, insights into what is working for them, and being more conscientious about the frequency of communication flow or tweaks (or pivots) in strategy are important considerations in maintaining human connections, trust, and loyalty. 

Working from home or living at work? 

I’m aware of a number of organisations that have asked their employees for input on what a ‘return to office’ world would look like. In general, their findings have been that many would prefer working from home 2-3 days per week. So, if we know that productivity is up and many are up for it to continue longer-term, what’s the downside? 

With increased flexibility and the fact that most businesses had to pivot quickly in order to continue operating, the challenge is for companies to help employees in establishing healthy boundaries and techniques for separating work from home in order to avoid burnout. 

With recent news that Google and Facebook have updated their communication to employees that they will be able to choose to continue working from home until mid-2021, leaders will need to play an increasingly important role in ensuring that the team knows that being ‘always on’ isn’t a good thing, sick leave isn’t only reserved for when you are too sick to commute to a commercial office, and that taking annual leave shouldn’t just be saved for a date in the future for when travel is an option. 

Embrace the new normal 

A recent observation is that virtual meetings no longer open with the discussion about how many weeks it’s been since each organisation moved to a work from home policy, symbolising the ‘new normal’ taking effect. 

With the trend towards remotely based teams longer-term and slimmed down office spaces accelerated by the pandemic, by embracing increased productivity and promoting greater flexibility, companies can build an even stronger culture than before.

Whilst we may not be catching up in a physical office kitchen or breakout space anytime soon, thankfully with the help of collaboration and connectivity tools available today, many companies are engaging in a genuine dialogue with their employees about what the ‘new normal’ should be.

About the author of ‘How can we thrive working from home?’
Cherie Diaz is the Managing Director of Australian operations at OpenLearning Limited (ASX:OLL). Cherie has over 15 years’ experience within education, including roles as the Head of Education Delivery at the Australian Institute of Company Directors And Director of Customer Success at Scentia, where she led the operational teams of four colleges. Cherie is the recipient of multiple individual and business awards for service excellence by the Customer Service Institute of Australia.

At Leaders in Heels, we’ve operated our team remotely since our inception almost a decade ago. Our staff, partnerships and suppliers work in different cities, countries and timezones. Needless to say, we’ve found our groove and how to best operate for productivity AND, more importantly, in a way that fosters provocative work too!

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Being a mum and an entrepreneur can be thrilling, fulfilling and a way to really have the best of both worlds. Yet, as any mumpreneur will tell you, it can sometimes feel as if you’re going a bit crazy, trying to juggle it all, taking care of so many people, working crazy hours and trying to do it all.

Here are five pragmatic tips to stay sane in the midst of all the chaos:

Indulge (briefly) in insanity

Sometimes the best way to stay sane is to have the freedom to indulge any emotion. Find someone to watch the kids for an hour, go for a walk, lock yourself in the bathroom, or call a friend and ask them if it’s ok to just vent. If you are sharing with someone, let them know they don’t need to fix anything for you; you just need a safe place to let some stuff out. Give yourself permission to feel and let out whatever you’ve been holding in. Allow yourself to be angry, sad, to scream, cry, or go crazy. Often, you’ll find you’re over it before you’ve even begun. When we resist or suppress things, they fester and create problems down the line.

Done is better than perfect

We could all drive ourselves crazy trying to be perfect and get everything just right. Acknowledge that you can either keep working and reworking everything (both job wise and parenting wise) or you can get it done and move on. There is no such thing as perfect. The quest for perfection will only keep you in endless amounts of judgment and stop you from creating. Do your best and know that it is far better than you realise anyway! If you find yourself obsessing over tiny details, ask yourself: “will this matter in five year’s time?” If not, choose to let it go.

Be willing to be a “bad mum”

Are you looking from the outside in at what others judge as good or bad qualities in a parent? If it hasn’t already, this will drive you crazy! Trust in you and your children to let you know what works for your family and be willing to get it ‘wrong.’ There will always be people passing judgements. But if you’re willing to be seen as a bad mum, you have the space and allowance for yourself to be you and find out what works and doesn’t work. This will teach your kids it’s okay to be yourself too, no matter what anyone else thinks!

Include your kids in your business

Rather than setting the stage for your kids to resent your work and see it as ‘the thing that takes mum away from me’, let them know what you’re up to. No matter how young they are, you can give them information about why you are spending time away from them. Young kids can understand phrasing such as, “Mum is going on this trip in order to make money so we can buy you toys and yummy food.” As they grow older you can give them more information about what things cost and give them ideas of how they can value money, and start to make their own money too!

Ask your kids if they can contribute to making work tasks easy for you. For example, “Can you play quietly while I make this phone call and then we can go outside and play together?” Oftentimes being fully present and engaged with your children for a short period of time allows them to relax. Then they can more easily accept, and respect, your working hours.

Don’t pretend you’re not a mother

Lets face it, your kids will always be your number one priority. If they need you, you will be there for them. Taking care of them when they’re sick, hurt, or going to a special event with them, is part of what’s required for you to stay sane. There’s nothing more distracting than trying to work when your kids are tugging at you (energetically, emotionally, or physically) So be upfront with your colleagues and clients. Let them know what’s going on, without oversharing.

You’d be surprised how understanding people can be if you just let them into your world a little bit. And if they’re not… maybe you don’t want to be working with them!

Lauren Marie is a Joy of Business facilitator, acupuncturist, entrepreneur and mother of twins. She travels worldwide, facilitating classes and changing her clients’ point of view about life, health and business. Born on the outskirts of Washington D.C., Lauren now lives on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. A passionate creator and conscious rule-breaker, Lauren seeks to inspire other mothers to see the possibilities others overlook and to embrace every challenge and choice that parenthood brings.

With the new year upon us, now is the time to really focus on what you want to achieve. Perhaps it’s finishing that study course, chasing your dream job or making that business idea come to life?

This month, Leaders in Heels is running a ‘Day in the Life’ series to give you an idea of what other small business owners and entrepreneurs get up to on a daily basis and perhaps inspire you to chase your own business dreams.

Kicking off with our ex-Editor in Chief, Rashida Tayabali, who moved on to run her own businesses as a freelance writer and founder of Project Mum, a project matching service for other skilled mothers and growing businesses needing expertise for various projects. See what a typical Day in the Life of a Work At Home Mum (WAHM) is like:

1. What time do you wake up?

I’m usually up by 9am as I’m not a morning person. Early mornings make me cranky.

2. What is the first thing you do when you wake up?

I make myself a cup of tea and sit for a few minutes in silence.

3. Breakfast – yay or nay?

I have breakfast with my three-year-old who I look after full-time while also running my two businesses as a freelance writer and founder of Project Mum.

4. How do you get to work and how long does it take?

I work from home so no commuting. I definitely don’t miss the commute!

5. What are the typical things you do every day?

Project Mum is a project matching service for growing businesses that need a specific skill or expertise to complete a short or long term project. Skilled mums on our database are matched to project requirements or expertise so I check email and social media after breakfast, answer any urgent emails and then it’s activities with my son. I start working after 2pm most days.

6. What decisions do you make and what is the impact?

I make all the decisions for my business and this affects the results I get and where I put in my time.

I pride myself on managing to find solutions to the most difficult of problems and inspiring other stay at home mums to build a business they love around their children.

Flexible work is definitely the future and mums should never have to choose between their work and family as I did. I believe it’s possible to do both and do it well. Stay at home mums offer tremendous potential in terms of skills for businesses and that’s what I want to action.

7. What do you love most about your job?

I get to work for myself and I love the flexibility and autonomy this gives me compared to when I was working in the corporate world.

8. How do manage all the tasks you need to do?

By making a weekly list and prioritising tasks. Limiting myself to between 3-5 things per week ensures I don’t get overwhelmed with managing a preschooler in the house full-time too.

9. How do you manage the balance between work and personal life?

I’m a little bad at this as I tend to be consumed with work when I’m really in the zone. I try not to work on the weekends unless I have a deadline and limit the number of apps on my phone to avoid wasting time.

10. How has the work environment changed from when you first began?

I’m a lot further along than I was when I first started in both my businesses and the amount of work I’m doing has also increased.

11. Who and/or what inspires you?

A challenge inspires me – I’m always looking to learn new things and achieve more.

12. Why do you do what you do?

Because I need to have certain achievements as an individual and as a woman separate to what I do as a mum. I’m fiercely independent and always have sought to do my own thing.

My aim is for Project Mum to develop into a place where mums can rediscover themselves by using those hard earned skills and knowledge they acquired before bubs to do work they really enjoy. A place where small business owners can get access to help, tips, and inspiration in running their own businesses.

13. Tips for other WAHM?

Don’t compare yourself to anyone. Nothing is more demoralising than this and it’s a complete waste of time. Believe in yourself and hang on during the bad times.

14. How do you define success?

It needs to be personal and is different for everyone, and you need to be committed to that definition.

15. What challenges have you faced as a WAHM and how have you overcome them?

Looking after my son full time means I don’t have the luxury to work as many hours as I can. I work around him rather than expect him to fit into my schedule. When I need help I ask for it. I don’t try and be everything to everyone and when I need time out I take it.

Are you a Work At Home Mum, tell us how do you manage your business and family in the comments below?