CEO Memo: Shift back to the office a trigger for boards to create a culture that works for all

Next week will see events held across the globe to mark International Women’s Day (IWD), anchored around this year’s theme of ‘break the bias’. It’s a day that helps keep important conversations about equality and diversity on the radar and Governance Institute will be rolling out its own set of Women in Leadership events to add to the discussion and debate.

But this year’s IWD comes as both women and men face a major new transition — and challenge. As governments remove more layers of COVID-19 restrictions, employers are eager to bring their teams back to the office. But as The Age recently stated, it’s a ‘delicate dance’ between bosses and often reticent workers who have spent much of the last two years reorganising their home lives to make their work lives work.

COVID-19 prompted a disruption of historic proportions: As well as the shift to WFH, we also schooled from home. Organisations can now legally hold their AGMs online or as a hybrid and execute documents electronically. And stigma has all but evaporated from discussions around mental health as we all now realise that mental wellbeing is just as imperative as physical health.

The lockdown periods also prompted a disruption in gender relations, but not for the better with women typically picking up more than their fair share of home school duties and domestic chores, all while trying to keep their own professional lives on track.

This imbalance must be a consideration in the plan to transition employees back to the office and flexibility needs to remain at the core of the working day and the board and management’s approach.

This approach certainly doesn’t mean sacrificing productivity or lowering those KPIs — workers have proved they can remain highly productive under flexible, changeable conditions. But many will also be genuinely missing the camaraderie, idea-generation and collaboration that comes with an office environment. It’s just about finding that balance.

With all of these factors at play, how can senior management and boards best manage this latest transition? Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Be proactive: Boards need to lead from the top, proactively creating the culture that is best for their organisation — and importantly, their employees. Don’t just let the next few months play out without a plan as you may uncover issues (problems) later that are too far gone.
  • Keep that flexibility rolling: There really is no going back. Forget presenteeism and focus on engagement, outcomes, and productivity.
  • Consider a hybrid approach: We at Governance Institute are keen to see our employees back in the office a minimum of two days a week which we think will strike an effective balance for idea generation, discussion, and collaboration. Consider what model will work best for your organisation.

After two years of major change and disruption, it’s time to ask the question: Have the tectonic plates genuinely shifted — or was it just the plates rumbling?

We saw steps forwards on flexibility, but also steps backwards for gender equality.

History brought us the industrial revolution and a technology revolution and indicators suggest we are currently in the midst of a work revolution — and boards and management have a major role to play at this crucial time in Australia’s history to ensure this revolution is fair and equitable for all.

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