COVID-19 will bring lasting changes to the Australian workplace – this idea gained steam in the early days of the crisis, and seems to solidify with each passing news cycle. Even when the virus is finally vanquished, the collective appetite for remote work will not disappear. Professionals throughout the world have developed a taste for it.

Avoiding the commute is one of biggest factors. Many people are accustomed to rising early, spending an hour or two on trains to reach the office, and doing the same commute in evening hours. If you take this ritual out of the picture – even for two or three days a week – the benefit is tangible for many people. Sleep patterns and exercise regimens improve. Families are together more often. Cost savings increase – and perhaps carbon footprints decrease – as people are empowered to move around less, be more introspective, and prioritise wellbeing.

These benefits don’t apply to everyone equally, of course – but from a systems-thinking perspective, they make a degree of sense. Keep in mind: Flexibility and remote work were gaining steam long before COVID.

Pros and cons

As so many people learned in 2020, there are downsides to remote work. The experience of being at the office with colleagues provides a refreshing distinction to home life. Some remote workers have reported frustration and fatigue with “blurred lines” between work and home. Productivity can flag as workers struggle to perform in home office settings, whether due to distraction or a disturbing lack thereof.

Remote work is also conducted, in many cases, with a subtext of uncertainty about the viability of the organisation itself, due to collective uncertainty.

To that end, personal and economic stresses can’t be undersold.

The balance between current conditions (whatever they happen to be today) and mental health is a logistical concern for employers who seek to maintain high-performance teams. In a nutshell, looking after talent is critical.

There is an argument that in a crisis of this magnitude, the concept of ‘accountability’ becomes more nebulous. After all, it is based on a shifting landscape nobody fully understands.

On the other hand, the question of holding people accountable always applies from a human resources perspective. As the global economy flags, the importance of organisational performance rises. As colleagues, we must hold each other accountable for performance, even as we demonstrate empathy for shared and personal conditions.

How do we do this? Could it be that the answer is not really in list of dot points, but rather in a mindset?

Talent management has always been about people. There have always been situations where an employee cannot perform and the relationship is not sustainable. There have always been situations in which high-performing employees must be terminated due to financial constraint.

These situations will continue to exist, even as COVID fades into history. Remote work, on the other hand, stands little chance of fading.

A hybrid model

We can all look forward to getting together around a conference table, talking and breathing the same air without a second thought. It’s a great way to work, and so many valuable connections are forged by the power of the personal.

Even so, a hybrid model is the future. Remote work has too many potential upsides to ignore. Going forward, managers will have to re-examine structures of employee accountability and performance. The shifting landscape is an opportunity to evolve, but at this juncture, there is no one recipe for success. Going forward, managers will need to work harder to fuse the idea of “people” with “performance.” After all – from an organisational perspective, these two elements are one in the same.

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