Finance Work Not keen on the office return? You may have no choice – but it can work in your favour
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Not keen on the office return? You may have no choice – but it can work in your favour

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Many Australians are returning to the office for the first time in almost a year this week, but not everyone is enthusiastic about it.

Although the return of white-collar workers is great news for beleaguered CBD businesses, many employees are keen to stay away from office towers, whether because of ongoing health risks or a new-found comfort in remote work.

Unfortunately for those who would rather dial into meetings than attend them in person, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) says employers are well within their rights to require workplace attendance if the direction is reasonable and no public health order prevents it. 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the five-day commute. 

Sarah McCann-Bartlett, chief executive at the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI), says those looking for more flexibility at work this year will have more leverage than usual when negotiating with managers.

That’s because in the post-pandemic world, companies everywhere are embracing hybrid work models, redrawing standards for workplaces across the country as staff come to expect regular work days at home.

“Those companies that don’t offer flexibility to their employees will find themselves losing their competitive advantage as employers,” Ms McCann-Bartlett told The New Daily.

Negotiating your flexible work arrangements

Flexible working took off during the pandemic, and few Australians are under the illusion it’s going away any time soon.

But, as many workers start navigating office hours for the first time in almost a year, it’s unclear what a ‘hybrid’ work model will look like.

Is it one day in, one day out? One day each week packed with face-to-face meetings? Or somewhere in between?

These are the questions workers are asking managers in most white-collar businesses, and the answers will be different for everyone.

So, what are the best ways workers can go about negotiating with managers?

Ms McCann-Bartlett said being upfront about your needs and preferences is the first step.

“Employers see this as an opportunity as well. They’re looking closely at the way we work and asking what the best way forward is,” she said.

“Expect more flexible working than in the past, but take a step back as well [and] open a conversation with your employer.”

Ms McCann-Bartlett said staff who want more flexibility should draw attention to the quality of work they produced remotely last year, as productivity is a key concern for managers.

“Raise the fact it’s not about inputs, or how many hours you actually spend in the office, it’s about outputs – results,” she said.

“Then make sure performance goals are specific and measurable. That way, any concerns managers have about productivity can be reduced.”

Office commutes are back in business.

But what happens if you’re stuck with a manager who’s a work-from-home sceptic, or merely prefers to work in the office and drags everyone else along with them?

Don’t be afraid to make it a company-wide conversation, Ms McCann-Bartlett advises. There’s power in numbers, and you might be surprised by how many colleagues feel the same way as you.

“You want to be having regular conversations about what’s working and what’s not, then tweaks can be made to make sure everything is aligning with your organisation,” Ms McCann-Bartlett said.

“Everybody needs to feel like they’ve had a fair go.”

Employers must also satisfy a number of legal requirements.

They must provide a safe workplace, allow workers to comply with existing public health orders (like a direction to self-isolate), and adhere to staffing caps imposed upon them by state or territory governments.

Your workplace is likely to have a COVID-safe plan that sets out health and safety policies for the office return, so it’s a good idea to review this and make sure your employer is keeping everything above board.

Many workplaces have also adopted specialised flexible working policies that can guide staff in negotiating their own conditions.

So although full-time working from home is being taken off the table for many, there’s certainly no turning back the dial on the biggest disruption to workplace culture in generations.