Workplace culture changed forever

By Michael Roberts | posted on May 22, 2020

AS THOUSANDS of WA workers dusted off their suit jackets this week and returned to the office for the first time in months, a business management expert is warning leaders to keep health and safety front of mind.

As part of the State Government’s economically-focused four phase plan to ease restrictions, Western Australians are now being encouraged to return to work unless unwell or vulnerable.

Professor Gary Martin, the CEO of the Australian Institute of Management in WA, said it would be tempting to bring all your workers back at once, but cautioned against an all-in approach.

“While bosses and workers alike might relish the opportunity to trade their comfortable couches for corporate cubicles, a return to the office brings with it new opportunities for the virus to spread,” he said.

“The reality is what happens back in your office could make the difference between relative safety and ongoing disruption and health issues arising from new viral outbreaks.

“Minimisation of virus transmission should therefore be at the very top of bosses’ to-do lists.”

Although managers had their hands full trying to keep staff employed and everything was moving at a rapid pace, Professor Martin said employees needed clear directions in an uncertain time.

“The bottom line is those bosses who fail to launch plans for a safe return to the office are likely to infect their workforce with a lack of confidence and respect in their leadership.

“And that is one virus no leader wants to catch.”

One of the defining trends of the 21st century workplace has been the open-plan office.

Dividers came down, designated ‘chill out’ zones sprouted out of nowhere and ‘hot seating’ became everyone’s new favourite term.

But the COVID crisis could spell the beginning of the end for the much-maligned open-plan layout.

While Australian workplaces won’t completely switch back to traditionally-styled offices, Professor Martin said there is no doubt they will change.

“For many, open-plan offices have always been a difficult idea to swallow,” he said.

“Critics suggested the work benefits were masked by the real underlying business case: to reduce overall floor space by wedging workers into a confined space to save money for the organisation.

“Some experts believe we are twice as likely to become sick in open-style working places than in more traditional offices that feature walls and barriers.”

Professor Martin said long gone are the days when you might be respected or considered brave for turning up to work with a fever.

“The new way of thinking is that you are crazy and so inconsiderate to come into work when you are sick, even if it’s gastro and nothing to do with coronavirus,” he said.

“There’s going to be a strong shift in culture because people will turn on someone if they go into workplaces unwell.”