Will it be safe to ‘return to work’?

Wondering when we are going safely ‘back to work’ is on everyone’s mind and people are having mixed feelings. For many the fear and trepidation of catching COVID 19 is paralysing, whilst others are really missing the interaction as the novelty of WFR wears off.

A big chuck of corporate Australia is already working safely….productively and efficiently. Remotely. For this big chunk, the virus has been the ultimate in validation for Virtual working.

“A challenge for employers in the city may be the reluctance of people to return to work early due to concerns of safety in public transport, or a preference for more flexible work options now that many employees have experienced work from home.” Said ICG’s human capital leader, Greg Barnier, AFR May 5, 2020.

The technology to enable remote / virtual working has existed for many years. A psychological inertia has been the main barrier, that has rendered corporate Australia unwilling to let go of the historical ritual of gathering in a central location. Risk averse executives have been reluctant to rock the boat. Ego driven executives enjoy the prestige of a corner office.

But much like Y2K forced the corporate world to re-think and embrace IT, COVID 19 has similarly forced them down the road of virtual working. A path they probably wouldn’t have gone down left to their own devices.

And the verdict?  If your company can survive the biggest crisis in a lifetime (that they wouldn’t have otherwise) by adopting virtual working, why would they revert to the ‘old normal’. When they now have proof that being in close proximity to each other every day isn’t actually the driver of performance that was previously accepted, why would they force employees to go back? When all of the benefits of virtual working have now been discovered why would you force staff back into the ritual of daily commuting and hand back all those benefits?  And why would companies risk the health of their employees and why would they continue to rent thousands of square meters of commercial office space for no measurable financial gain?

In future face to face collaboration needs to be justified,  planned, purposeful and productive, if not work from where ever you like or wherever you need to. Travelling 2 hours a day because ‘we used to before’ is no justification.  Surely the balance between  frustration with ‘new normal’ and the benefits of the new normal would be no worse than 50/50.

Virtual working at the current rate of adoption will give our transport infrastructure the equivalent of a huge boost in capacity that would have cost many, many billions. The crisis has been like winding back the clock to a time when our population was much smaller. Our major cities will be much more liveable for the next 20 years as a result , improving the quality of life of everyone, not just the Virtual workforce.