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WFH or around the globe? Why business leaders let their people travel
COVID-19 triggered a seismic shift in how and where we work.
Now, as we peer over the crest of the Omicron wave, organisations worldwide are questioning how their post-pandemic workplaces might look.
Closer to home, many New Zealanders are poised to leave now the border is open – pulled by distant friends and whānau, and pushed by rising inflation and high house prices.
So how are ACE New Zealand members balancing people’s needs with business requirements when it comes to remote and flexible working?
Formalising remote working is one way to help people reconnect with loved ones without losing valued team members, says Simonne Eldridge, Tonkin + Taylor’s Executive Leader – Clients + Brands.
“We were working towards embedding remote and flexible working into our DNA when COVID-19 accelerated the process. For me, that meant working from my campervan for a couple of weeks during school holidays, with my well-behaved boys in the background.
“Since the Orange traffic light setting, we have been encouraging our people to work where it suits them and their role – whether that’s in the office, at home, or a mix of the two.”
The reasoning? “To make it as easy as possible for people in different circumstances to balance their work and personal lives,” says Simonne.
Providing a more inclusive working environment was also the basis of Tonkin + Taylor’s recent Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging survey, which found that 50 per cent of employees have immediate family overseas.
This insight triggered the creation of Tonkin + Taylor’s new Working Away initiative, which allows employees to extend their travel plans to spend more time with family (up to four weeks at a time).
“It’s more expensive and more complicated to go overseas now than before the pandemic hit,” says Simonne.
“We’re working with people to help find ways to balance working remotely, reconnecting with family and taking a break. So we’re not just hijacking their holidays – we’re asking them to take annual leave as well.”
Managers decide whether a period of working overseas suits a particular role and time difference.
“One of my team members recently spent five weeks in Europe and ended up working some odd hours as they wanted to stay involved in certain projects. Not ideal for them, but they really wanted to go, and I was happy to support them.”
Aside from time zone logistics, there are some other considerations to bear in mind. It’s important to get tax advice before signing off on any stints overseas, says Simonne.
“We’ve worked with tax advisors to establish the maximum duration people can work from a particular jurisdiction. We also have a list of approved countries – not to say others can’t be added, but not without thorough research into any tax implications.”
Insurance is something to be aware of too, especially with regards to COVID-19 cover.
“Make sure employees are aware of what your company’s travel insurance policy covers and any limitations it may have,” says Simonne.
For Tony Harrison, co-founder and Technical Director of Urban Connection, there is no question about ditching the office permanently, even when Covid wanes. He and co-founder Aaron Campion chose a fully flexible and remote model when Urban Connection was established in 2018.
It’s worked in the company’s favour with regards to COVID-19. By mid-April 2022, they had only just experienced their first case in the workplace.
“We have had very few sick days thanks to our remote working model. COVID-19 aside, we genuinely believe our team members are in better mental and physical health due to the way we work.”
Already being established a remote workplace means it’s no great leap for employees to extend their overseas trips by taking some work with them.
“We have a couple of team members who are going to have some longer overseas holidays this year and we have no issue with them doing some work while they’re away,” says Tony.
“We do, however, put some emphasis on the team member ensuring they have aligned the right type of work if they are looking at this as an option.”
More than a working holiday
Another benefit of a fully remote model, says Tony, is being able to have permanent staff members overseas.
“One of our team members has been working from India since 2020. For fieldwork purposes, we would love to have this person on the ground in New Zealand. However, our existing model allowed us to keep them in the role, without too much disruption.
“As our business grows and the balance of field and office work changes, we would definitely consider hiring overseas.”
For Tony, the benefits by far outweigh the negatives when it comes to remote working.
“We get the best person, rather than the best person within 50km of an office. We have reduced our CO2 emissions by 27 tonnes by our team not commuting. That’s the equivalent of planting 1,292 trees.
“Our team have saved hundreds of hours not commuting, to use as they please. Combining remote with fully flexible means our people have more time to spend with family, or doing other lifestyle activities more suited within ‘normal’ work hours.”
Although remote working suits a lot of people, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.
Younger staff members don’t always have the best home circumstances for remote working, and are finding it harder to connect, says Simonne.
“There are fewer chances of bumping into people and for spontaneous interactions to occur. Younger staff members are sometimes worried about interrupting, or dislike the forcedness of setting up a formal meeting.
“Proximity bias means that if you’re sitting next to a young enthusiastic graduate, you’re more likely to involve them in your project.” A way to work around this is by creating an environment where people feel comfortable approaching others, says Simonne.
“We have frequent stand-up meetings and drop-in sessions for people to connect, and make sure we communicate in a way that makes people feel that reaching out is perfectly acceptable and what they need to do to get the job done.
“In future, we’ll be looking at ways to encourage people back into the office at times, to have more in-person connection – and make the most of our fantastic new Auckland office.”
For Tony, recruiting younger employees at Urban Connection has been tricky at times.
“Different generations want different things from their jobs, and we can’t necessarily offer the social element you get in a larger offices. There’s also a misconception that you don’t receive the same training during those early years – something our younger staff haven’t found to be the case.”