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Changes in work during COVID-19 (and beyond), Professor Sharon Parker

This session provides evidence-based practical steps to address some of the issues associated with COVID-19 such as isolation, work stress, the need for good organisational support, and communication.

Good day, everyone. Welcome to our third online series presentation for October, which of course is Safe Work Month. I'm Chris Bombolas from the Office of Industrial Relations. And I'm your MC for today.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today and pay my respects to the Elders, past, present, and emerging.

I'd like to extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples watching today. I would also like to thank our Safe Work Month Short Talk sponsor, No More Pain Ergonomics. No More Pain Ergonomics is one of Australia's leading suppliers of ergonomic equipment and solutions. They work with a wide range of business customers to assist them with their ergonomic needs. No More Pain Ergonomics has an extensive range of ergonomic equipment to support any ergonomic-related issue.

Today's event is presented by Professor Sharon Parker, who is a John Curtin distinguished professor in organisational behaviour, in the Faculty of Business and Law. She is also the director of the Center for Transformative Work Design and is the chief investigator of the mature workers in organisations stream of the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing.

Not only that, but she has worked as a researcher and consultant in a wide range of public and private organisations, and delivered numerous keynote talks, executive education for practitioner audiences.

Sharon has published high impact articles in the Harvard Business Review, the Conversation, and other practitioner outlets, and has contributed to various government inquiries and policy reviews. She was the lead consultant on the National Good Work Design Initiative for Safe Work Australia.

I'm sure we are all ready to hear Sharon's advice on evidence-based practical steps to address some of the issues associated with COVID such as isolation, work stress, the need for good organisational support, and communication. This is a very fitting and topical subject for us right now.

Before I welcome in Sharon, remember, if you have a question, we do have a Q and A session at the end of Sharon's presentation. Use the chat box to put in, or type in your question, and we'll get to as many as we can at the end of Sharon's presentation. And of course, if you do have any technical issues, use that chat box or go to, use that chat box or go to, and our tech gurus will be right onto it. Welcome Sharon from Perth.

Thank you so much, Chris. And thank you everybody for inviting me today and for attending. I'd like to acknowledge that I am on the land of the Whadjuk people, of the Noongar Nation here in Perth, Western Australia. And I pay my respects to Elders, past, present, and emerging.

Look, this is a big topic that we're going to cover today. You know, what's been happening in work during COVID, and what might happen into the future. So let me, without further ado, move on. And I've now discovered that my slides are not moving forward, here we go. We are in business.

So look, first of all, what was happening in terms of people working from home, and that's going to be my focus today, before COVID? And basically, not many people were working from home. The Australian Bureau of Stats estimates about nine to 20%. That's actually probably more than, is reasonable actually, because they have a sort of strange criteria and they included anyone who did any work from home, you know, even catch up work in the evening. In a nutshell, it was really pretty much the chosen few people, sort of bit more privileged people who were able to work from home, and they were usually doing it part time.

Of course, then we had COVID. And many, many people had to work from home. So one way of thinking about this, is it's not so much people working from home, but people at home trying to do their work in a pandemic.

So a bit less choice about whether you could work from home, many people doing it, even though their work wasn't really suitable or it wasn't really their preference, and less time to get organized, get set up. Other issues, of course, we're all incredibly familiar with, you know, such as having to home school at the same time, and so on.

And then of course we have this question, well, what about the future? What are we going to see? Will we see a reversion back to how it was? Will we see hybrid as the new normal? And I'll come to that at the end of the presentation.

I want to start with people's level of mental health, 'cause that's obviously, a part of what this month is all about focusing on. Pre-pandemic, depending on which measure you use, the estimates vary, but using this particular measure, the K5 or the K10, around about 13% of the Australian population experienced very high or high levels of psychological distress, the sorts of levels that you might expect them to benefit from clinical intervention. In the early days of COVID, that figure was more like 21.9%.

So almost a doubling of the number of people experienced high distress during COVID. One of the questions that I want to really address today is, was this just 'cause of the pandemic? I mean, people were, you know, uncertain and not able to travel, and businesses were in jeopardy.

Is it just the pandemic or actually, is there something also about work? If we go to productivity, we asked people, and this data comes from a large study that we did during COVID. We actually measured people 15 times, so I'm very grateful to everyone who participated in our study, starting way back in April last year and ending just quite recently.

And we asked people how productive do you think you are compared to normal, as in pre-COVID? And about one quarter of people were saying less than usual. You can also see that some people are saying more than usual, and some people are saying, you know, about as productive as before.

So one of the things when we talk about people's experience of work during COVID is there's a lot of variation, right? There's a lot of heterogeneity. People's experiences were very different. But there were about 25% of people who felt they were not as productive, and again, we asked this question, was it just because some people were having to work from home, even though they shouldn't really because of the nature of the work, and was it this sort of just mismatch between working from home and the type of work, or was it something else as well?

And one of the key messages, there's two key messages that I would like to convey today. One of the key messages is the answer to those two questions that I've just posed is, that people's work itself actually also influences the quality of their work, influences their mental health and wellbeing, and I'm going to unpack that a bit more.

And the second key message related to that, that I want to make during today's presentation is that we need to sort of move away from saying, should we be able to remote work or not, or should we have flexible working or not? I think we've gone beyond that question to really say, how do we design good work, quality work, whether it's flexible and remote, or whether it's in the office? So that is the shift that I would like to encourage.

So I'm going to use the framework of work design to make these arguments, and work design is about the content and the organizing of tasks, activities, relationships, and responsibilities within a job or a role, or a set or a group of jobs and roles. Now that's a fairly academic definition.

So one of the things that we've done in our team is introduce the SMART model of work design. And it is a way of sort of making that academic definition a bit more practical and easy to understand. So with regard to the topic of work design, and you may be used to thinking about it in terms of psychosocial hazards.

Actually, there've been many, many studies over many years looking at how core aspects of your work design influence important outcomes, and you can see there on the screen a list of some of those.

So how much variety you have in your work, whether you've got role clarity, whether you've got control, if you're under emotional pressure and so on and so forth. To make sense of that, we've recently conducted some research to do, what's called a higher order factor analysis, and really just to group statistically those factors. And this is where the model comes from.

I will unpack it more in the context of COVID. And if you've heard me talk about the SMART work design model before, today, I'm going to focus on how it applies to the experience of working from home with COVID. So the first part of the model is stimulating. And this is really about things like, having variety in your work, using your skills, feeling you're doing something meaningful, having some complexity and some challenge. M is for mastery, and mastery is basically about the fact that people want to go to work and they want to do a good job. But they can only master their work and do a good job if they know what they should be doing, so that's the role clarity element, and also, if they get feedback on how they are doing.

And it helps, of course, also to understand how does your job fit into the bigger picture? So that's mastery. A is for agency and that's about autonomy or control. The importance of having some influence over when and where you work and in key decisions in your job. And of course, to some extent, flexible working can be about agency, you know, having more control over where you work and working from home. It wasn't necessarily during COVID, of course, because people didn't necessarily have choice, but pre COVID, it was usually about agency. R is for relational, and this aspect of work speaks to the fact that as human beings, we all have a fundamental need to connect with other people.

And we've noticed that more than ever during COVID, and I'll talk more about that later. So relational aspect of SMART work is about having social contact at work, connecting with, not just your colleagues, but the people who benefit from the work, the end users, getting support from your peers, from your supervisor, being part of a team, these sorts of things are relational. And then we'll come to T and T is for tolerable.

And tolerable means that all those demands that you have in your work, because in essence, work is about achieving goals, so it invariably has demands, it's pretty much the definition of work. All those demands that you do have in your work though, they need to be tolerable for you. So your workload, your pressure, your work hours, your role expectations, they all need to feel manageable and tolerable for you.

And that's the SMART work design model. And again, without going into detail, there is a lot of research. I reviewed a hundred years of work design research a few years ago, and we found more than 5,000 studies showing that those aspects of SMART work that I've just talked about are important for mental health, they are important for motivation and performance, and they're also important for learning and growth. But what about when we're working from home?

So, as I mentioned, we surveyed some, a thousand, actually, it was more than a thousand, but of course, by the time people drop out over time, it was a smaller number, but we surveyed at least a thousand people around what was their work experience, so how SMART was their work during COVID?

So when they were working from home, most people in this sample were working from home. And then we statistically link that with their scores on mental health and well-being measures, and also their scores on performance. Now, this is a big figure, and I'm gonna unpack it as we go through. What I wanted to show you with this big figure is that, whoops, I've gone the wrong way, sorry about that, is that all of those aspects of SMART that I talked about are important, and here the darker shading means, a stronger relationship.

All of those aspects of work are important for at least some of these aspects of mental health and well-being and job performance. So just as an example, if we look at this burnout column, we can see that the more stimulating your work, the less the burnout, the more mastery, the less the burnout, the more agency, the less the burnout. So those negative scores mean that relationship is reversed. The more relational aspects in your work, the less the burnout. But here, the more you've got these things like, workload and work-family conflict, the more burnout there is in your work. So I want to unpack this some more. So let's start with stimulating.

So when people were working at home, how stimulating was their work? And we found that actually quite a few people, about 30%, really were reporting that their work at home was not very stimulating. Not feeling very much variety in their work. And some people really just feeling they didn't have enough to do. And that actually has consequences for people's performance, right? I showed you correlations before, but here I'm showing you something different.

What I'm showing you is I mentioned that our study looked at, we measured people 15 times. Actually this I think, is just five waves of that data. And we asked the question, how does people's psychological distress shift over that time? And you can see that there are two groups in our data. There's this green group, who started with lower psychological distress than the red group. And basically, their psychological distress reduced, or they got more mentally healthy over time. And that's a sort of adaption effect, okay?

So to begin with, it was a little bit uncertain, and new, and confusing, and scary, but over time, you sort of adapt and things settled down. And that was one group of people, that was about 80% of the people in the sample. But for 20% of the people in the sample, we saw a different pattern and we saw these people starting with higher levels of distress. If you can see they start at time one high, and you can see that the levels of distress actually, get higher over time. They sort of then plateau, but at a high level.

And then we asked the question, okay, well, which sorts of people are in these two groups? And one of the things we found is that, people who were underloaded, who lacked stimulation in their job were in this top group, they became more distressed over time. And I'm gonna give some more results on this same figure later as I go through the other aspects of the SMART model. But just in terms of underload, it's important, right? Because I think we have this, we have this perception that, oh, if people don't have enough to do, they'll be actually happy, you know, they'll be out playing golf and all that sort of stuff.

But the reality is if people don't have enough to do, it's actually quite confronting and distressing, and, you know, reducing of the motivation and meaning in their work. So what do we do about that?

Well, for each of the aspects of SMART, I'll share a few tips. So if your work was not very stimulating at home, you know, what is it that you can do as an individual to craft, and change your job to make it more stimulating?

So just as an example, I have a picture there of my PA, and her job became less stimulating during COVID, because when she was working from home, she couldn't do a lot of the reception, sorts of event management sorts of activities that she normally would do, so she took it upon herself to how to do web design, because that was something that she wanted to do. So that was an example of her crafting her work to make it more stimulating.

And if anyone is interested in that idea, on the website that I'll show you at the end, or website, I put together a series of blogs and videos during COVID that cover, and there was one on "'I'm Bored!': How to make your work more stimulating", and it just gives some ideas about that.

So there's things you can do as an individual. Of course, if you're a leader, there's also things that you can do if your workers, your employees were not being sufficiently stimulated. And again, I don't have time to go through all the suggestions, but one thing is of course, trying to create some more meaningful projects.

Perhaps an opportunity to develop some new improved processes, or perhaps an opportunity to, I don't know, explore the market or whatever, but deliberately taking some action to help people have stimulating meaningful work whilst at home. I'm going to move now to mastery.

And remember mastery was about the importance of having clarity about what you're doing and getting feedback and understanding how your work contributes to the bigger picture. Actually, all of those issues were challenges for people, for some people, during COVID, especially in the early days, people didn't know, you know, do I have to work at home nine to five? Can I be flexible?

What are your expectations? Often people didn't know what they were. Often, they didn't get any feedback from their managers. And often they were also just over time, sort of got a bit disconnected and not sort of remembering what was the sort of vision, what is the purpose of the work and so on?

So you can see there, these statistics from this data showed that, about 40% of people were saying, I'm not getting enough feedback, and about 14% were saying, I'm not really clear on my goals and my objectives. And this, of course, is very stressful. And you saw in those earlier correlations that I showed you that low mastery is associated with more distress. It's also important from a feedback perspective.

So another way that we've analysed the data is to look and see if you were getting feedback at time one, what happens over time? And we showed with these analyses that people who were getting feedback at time one, experienced more clarity and less procrastination. So they were less likely to procrastinate, because after all it's quite hard sometimes to keep yourself motivated when you're working at home, and getting feedback from the job. So getting feedback from your clients or whatever, actually helps you to be motivated. And then that was associated with feeling that they were performing more effectively at time three.

And then we found that feedback from others. So getting feedback from your peers or from your supervisors was also associated with having more clarity and less procrastination. And interestingly made you more adaptive three weeks later. And that's important, and in a sense, feedback from others is probably a bit more challenging, and probably sort of jolts you into changing the way that you do things. But the message here is the importance of making sure that, if you're a leader, that people have got clarity, and feedback and understand where they are in the big picture, but also taking steps yourself as an individual to get that clarity.

So just as one example, if you're a leader, one of the things you can do is, you know, build some feedback into your virtual meetings. I think there's a tendency for all of us, and I'm guilty of this myself, to sometimes think, you know, well give people feedback in the performance appraisal process, but there's absolutely no harm, and in fact benefit, as shown by the previous slide, in giving people feedback all the time, regularly.

So give people feedback, and encourage people to give each other feedback if you are a leader. And of course, if you ask someone yourself and you are not sure, and you are unclear, again, we have a tendency as human beings to wait until people choose to give us feedback, but there is absolutely no harm and a lot of benefit actually, to proactively seek feedback. So just to say, you know, how am I doing? Can you give me some feedback? What am I doing well? What would you like to see me improve on? And actually soliciting that feedback. So what you can see here is that with these suggestions that I'm giving, I'm giving suggestions for leaders and I'm giving suggestions for workers, and this is important, right? Because what we're really saying here is that good work design, good SMART work design, effective management of psychosocial risks is a joint responsibility.

It's the responsibility of individuals, and it's the responsibility of their managers and leaders. It's also the responsibility in the organisation, but I won't talk about that at this moment. Let's go now to autonomy or agency. If we just, first of all, go with pre-COVID, actually there was a lot of research showing that remote work or working from home has a lot of benefits for people. In fact, people tended to be more productive and have better well-being if they worked at home, at least some of the time.

And the reason for that, this research shows, is because people have more autonomy and they're able to choose when they do things, and how long they work or when they have their breaks, and so on. So that was pre-COVID research. But we found very similar findings here, that if people, when they were working at home felt they had autonomy, then that really helped them with their mental health. So you can see someone saying, even though I usually have autonomy, you know, during COVID, working from home it feels greater, because I could take breaks and use time completely as I see fit.

And, you know, you can see here someone else talking about the flexibility to stay home when slightly unwell or tired, or when my child is sick without feeling guilty about not going into the office, so maybe before, you could work from home, but you might feel guilty. And what you can see with these figures here, this is really just an enlarged version of what I showed you right at the beginning. If you have more decision-making autonomy when you're working from home, your burnout is less, and you can see if you have scheduling autonomy, which means autonomy over when you do things, your burnout is less. If you have autonomy over how you do things, your burnout is less.

And by the way, your satisfaction is higher, which is what you'd expect. But what's interesting also, you can see, we also measured, did you feel, when you were working from home, that you were being closely monitored?

So did you feel that your boss was expecting, checking up on you, making sure you're at your desk, et cetera? And did you feel what's called pressure to be available?

So did you feel like you had to sort of, no matter what the time of the day, answer the emails or respond to the phone calls, et cetera?

And we found that those, which are both sort of low agency, you can see are associated with more burnout and less job satisfaction. And I want to just delve a little bit more into this finding because it's very important. And what it shows is, just because people are working at home, we can't assume that they have agency or autonomy, because it's going to depend on how they are managed.

So one person said, for example, "My manager tends to micromanage more with work from home arrangements, which can be demotivating, and affects my morale and motivation. In one-on-one daily manager check-ins, there's a tendency to focus on what hasn't been done rather than what's been achieved." And what you can see here from these statistics, is that we asked, you know, for example, do you feel that you were expected to respond to electronic telephone messages immediately? You can see, you know, that quite a lot of people, if we add this up, it's about a third of people were saying, yes, quite often actually, or very often, and that sort of creates then a pressure to just be available, even though you're working from home, a sort of pressure.

And we actually wrote an article in Harvard Business Review, which we called, Remote Managers Are Having Trust Issues, because we also surveyed managers, and not surprisingly, given the fact that there was quite a lot of micromanagement happening, we found that about 24%, nearly one quarter of managers, doubted the ability of their employees to do their work at home. And actually, interestingly, for many managers, the trust got worse over time, not better. So as people sort of showed that they were working, it didn't necessarily changed managers' level of trust. In fact, maybe they got more worried over time.

So that's one reason that managers can monitor people too closely, and expect them to be available, because they just don't trust their workers. If I go back to this study that I showed you before, where we tracked change over time, one of the predictors of being in this pattern, and that remember that this red group is people who started with high distress that got worse, was having this very high level of close monitoring. So having the boss who is constantly calling to check that you're at the desk or, you know, make sure you weren't still in bed or whatever.

And you can see there that I've noted that this was especially, the workload, and I'll come to that a bit later, but the monitoring were especially stressful for people, if you were someone who doesn't detach very well, and again, I'll talk a little bit about that later. So how do you increase your agency at home or as a leader? So how do you increase your agency at home or as a leader?

How do you increase agency? Well, you know, one of the things that we need to learn to do, and actually this is probably good practice management anyway, even if you're working in the office, is to try to manage people more by outputs and results rather than by inputs. And, you know, that does ultimately require trust. And so instead of monitoring how much people are working,

And so instead of monitoring how much people are working, be looking more at the outputs of the work. And as an individual, of course, one of the things that's important is, if you do have agency that work, is to exercise that agency wisely because this system rests on trust. And if you ask someone who is struggling to motivate yourself, when you've got this more autonomy and so on, then actually one of the models I wrote, I haven't got it listed up there, is about how you can structure your time during the day and discipline yourself more and so on, and make sure that you maintain your productivity throughout the day.

And again, another blog there, "Tethered or Trusted? There's no excuse to not be at your desk" phenomenon that we observed and how you might address that. Okay. Relational. This is of course a big one with working from home, because many people did experience social isolation and a lack of support. Another relational challenge when working from home was also, how do you, as a team, coordinate? Because often a lot of the coordination just happens, by virtue of bumping into each other. How do you coordinate, as a virtual team, when you are not seeing each other face to face?

And I think I've already mentioned, another aspect was sometimes people losing their sense that they're making a difference to other people's lives. So here's an example, you know. "Working from home can be rather lonely. I miss helping people with advice and support. I miss laughing and hearing stories about dogs and kids. As an introvert, this has been the most surprising aspect of working from home." So people sometimes think that introverts don't need people. Introverts need people just as much as extroverts. They just like to interact with them, sometimes, in a different way. And here's an example of that coordination challenge. You know, our team is definitely less of a team right now. The times when you might just pull someone in for their opinion, that doesn't matter nearly as much anymore. So I can imagine over time, strategic vision or direction would fall by the wayside.

And what we showed again, seeing these statistics here, that if you were someone that had beneficiary contact, which means you are, you feel that you're connecting with the people who benefit from the work, the end users, if you felt you had good support from your colleagues and managerial support and a sense of value in your work, you know, you're less likely to be burnt out, and more likely to be satisfied and also to perform more effectively. We also did a study actually, very early in the pandemic, in China, looking, because pre-pandemic, China had very low levels of working from home. And then in that context, we found that social support from your colleagues or from your boss was really important in reducing loneliness, in reducing the amount of procrastination you were engaging in, in helping you to manage home-work issues, and also in terms of shaping your communication.

And all these things were important drivers of mental health and performance. So this goes to point Chris made when he introduced the conversation, that the support that you get from people really can make a difference to your work design experiences and your mental health. So no matter what challenges you're in, support is one of the most, most powerful vehicles. So as a leader, all sorts of things, of course, you can do. And I think during COVID, everybody learnt about the importance of check-ins, and helping to support water cooler conversations virtually, and so on.

But one thing I think was also important, which perhaps was less commonly done, was just to remind people of the purpose and the value of their work and its impact on others, because you're isolated, you can lose, you can lose that effect, and you can forget, and I personally suffered a bit from that, and it was important, you know, to remind each other, this is what we're really trying to do here, and this is why it matters. As an individual, again, lots of things that you can do.

One of the blogs and videos that I created was about this idea of building high quality connections. And again, I don't have time to talk through that now, but that video and blog there talks about how high quality connections involve genuine listening. how high quality connections involve genuine listening. They involve genuine perspective taking of the other person, and they involve actually, you being willing to help that other person. If you genuinely listen to someone, you can often find ways to help them that are meaningful.

So that blog is all about building high quality connections, not just lots of connections, but high quality connections. T is the big one, of course. And you can see that we measured people's workload. We measured their work-family conflict. It just obviously how much your work, and your family are causing conflict with each other. Work-home interference is similar. We measured whether you felt you were experiencing emotional demands, whether you were having problems with communication, often just technical issues, and also other technological hassles. And you can see with those large dark shadings of the link with burnout, that high workload, high work conflict, work-home interference, emotional demands, poor communication, these were strong correlates of burnout, and mental ill health during COVID. And you can see, you know, here's a quote, someone saying, it's hard to differentiate work and home space. So work seeps into non-work time and spaces. It's harder to shut down. There can be less distinction between work and personal life when I work from home. And so we actually measured people's time saved commuting, and then we asked them, what did you do with that time that you saved? And many people said, well, we worked. So one of the things that was happening actually in COVID, you know, we talked about some people had not enough to do, an underload, and how that was stressful, but also people sometimes just kept working more and more and more, because they didn't have that clear demarcation between work and home. And that time that they saved with, you know, commuting, they just poured into work. And so people we saw with emerging burnout, also, of course, people were coping with, you know, just the children at home sometimes, extra workload, because a lot of organisations had to rapidly change how they were doing things and so on. So again, coming back to that longitudinal study, work overload was one of the main drivers of being in that group, where your distress got worse over time. So it's not just correlations, it is, there is some rigor here. And again, especially, this was especially true, if you were someone who was not good at detaching from work. So a lot of research showing the benefit of actually stopping work and thinking about, and doing other things. So what can you do to make your own work more tolerable or others? One of the things is if you're a leader, there's all sorts of things you can do, and I've put them there, you can observe your work as for stress, and you can educate workers about stress and so on, you can try to reduce their demands. But what you can also do is increase the extent to which they feel their work is stimulating clear, and they've got feedback, and they've got agency and thus supported. So increasing the SMART aspects that I've talked about, actually research shows can help make high workloads and things much more tolerable. Again, lots of blogs I did on this topic about self-compassion, about switching off, how to recover, I mentioned that detachment is important, and there's some research around it. I'm happy to take questions on this around, what sorts of detachment, more important, there are some forms that are more important than others. And I also did a blog on this thing of being a Zoom zombie. And if you've got those back-to-back Zoom meetings, or Teams meetings, or whatever you're using, why that can get so exhausting, and what you can do to manage that. So plenty that you can do. So I want to start wrapping up, and talking a little bit about the future in the last five minutes. So I started asking at the beginning, is this elevated level of psychological distress that we observed during COVID, is that just due to things like pandemic, uncertainty and worry about catching the illness, et cetera? Well, I hope that I persuaded you that, no, some of it is about the quality of your work. And similarly, I asked, what about productivity? Is that just because your work is unsuitable? And no, it is also about things like your workload, the support that you get from your boss and so on. So what I've really tried to argue here, that if you have SMART work design when you're working from home, so stimulating work with mastery, with agency, where you got support and relational, and you're part of a team, and demands that are tolerable, then that is protective against your mental health, or your workers' mental health and lowered productivity. And what I suggested is that, where does SMART work design come from?

Where's the magic? Well, the magic is in what you do as an employee and what you do as a leader. And also, I have to say what organisations do, but I haven't talked about that just for the moment. So the first key message that I wanted to convey today is that people's mental health and well-being, and their work performance is affected by the quality of their work design. And I've introduced that SMART work model to help you understand what good quality work design is like. So that's good news, because that's something we can do something about. So what about the future, what's going to happen?

And we have seen all sorts of projections about this, where some people, you know, here's an article, for example, of 30 companies who's saying that they're going to have permanent remote work now, post-COVID. And we've also seen other articles where, people have been told you must get back to the office, because, I don't know, the city is suffering and you're a public servant, you got to get back in and be in the office.

So we've seen different extremes. We've seen sort of throw out the office altogether and also, throw out the home working. So, will working from home, at least some of the time, become the new normal? And do we want it to? Well, from our survey, we found that 73% of people are keen in the future to work from home, at least some of the time. And also, people have got more skill to do that.

So you can see I'm more confident that I can do my job effectively working from home than I was before COVID. I've developed technical skills and so on. So people feel more confident about working from home and they're keen to do so. And there's a lot of talk about the great resignation happening in the US and so on saying, well, if people can't get it, they're going to resign or they are resigning. So there's quite some pressure on organisations to find ways to allow people to work from home, at least some of the time. So which baby should we throw out? Well, if we throw out the remote work baby and insist everyone must come back into the office, we will lose those benefits of the greater agency that people have.

And I mentioned before that pre-COVID, the research showed a meta analysis of 46 studies showed that working from home, at least some of the time, was positive overall for work-life family conflict, for job satisfaction, for performance, because of that greater agency. So we don't really want to throw out the remote work baby, because there's some real benefits in people having more autonomy to choose where they work and how they have their breaks and exactly when they work and so on.

But we also don't necessarily want to throw out the office baby, because again, there is some research about the benefits of physically coming together, around informal interactions, community, and connection, and many of us know that, right? From our own experience and the desire to get back in the office. And of course, some groups in particular, can miss out if everything is remote.

One of the things that can happen, and there's some research on this. You need to get, especially when people are going back into the office for the first time after COVID, is the problem is that if not many people go back in the office, people who come into the office to connect with others will then go, oh, well, there's no one here, so I'm not gonna bother. So, you know, as these researchers said, "If the office is just a collection of employees not working together, it's essentially no different from a coffee shop, though perhaps with better internet and worse coffee." So we do need to think about what sort of offices people coming back to, what sorts of work people are coming back to. And if people are coming back to work for those informal interactions, and community, and connection, then do we need to change the way we're doing things to cultivate that some more.

And so ultimately in the end, I think we're going to see much more hybrid working, and we're gonna have to figure out ways of getting that right balance. And I think there's 3R's for leaders, that we need to think about. We need to reflect. First of all, what can be learned from working at home during the pandemic? Which tasks could be done at home, which can't? Who thrives, who doesn't?

Not everyone loves to be at home. Some people do love to be at home. What have been the positive surprises? What have been the downsides? What innovations have emerged and, you know, is this an opportunity to really rethink how things are done? The second R is reorient, and this was my second key message. I think that we do need to move away from just saying, can people work flexibly or not, to saying, yes, you know, really most people task contingent, of course, depends on your work, some work can't be done at home, but if it can be done at home, you know, supporting flexible working, but talking more about how do we ensure that that work is SMART, whether it's remote or whether it's in the office. So we need to move away from shifting our focus just on a policy.

A policy is not enough. We really need to look at those everyday practices, leadership practices, and individual practices that I've been talking about to make sure that we can get this hybrid working actually working. And I won't go through all that detail there, because I really do want to have some questions. And then I think the third R is research. Actually, we don't really know what's best yet, right? And we're still struggling to figure out how do we handle hybrid meetings? If there's eight people in the office and two people at home, you know, what do we do? Do we struggle on with our meeting with, can't hear the people at home, or do we all go back to our offices?

And if we do that, what about those eight people that are there and would like to talk to each other, et cetera? Big, big challenges there. So we've got to experiment, we've got to try, and we've got to then evaluate what is working and what's best, and again, a couple of blogs on that.

So my second key message and I'm close to finishing now, is that we really need to shift away from saying, should we have flexible working or not, to how do we design, how do we create that quality work, that SMART work, when we're remote, working from home, and when we're in the office? We have actually developed lots of resources that are freely available to you on our website.

One is geared towards individuals, how to make my flexible work SMART, one is geared towards managing teams, and one is geared towards leadership, and these draw on evidence and also practice. And you are welcome to download those. So at this point, I would just love say, thank you so much for listening. I can't see the chat, so I don't know if you have questions, but looking forward to sharing with answering some of those questions.

The good news, Sharon, is I have all the questions in hand. The bad news is you're at my mercy, so here we go.

Oh, dear.

Thank you for your presentation. Really enjoyed it. Earlier on, Carolyn asked, what was the question relating to autonomy of method, please?

Okay, so autonomy of methods, and we usually, with all of these things, we ask three or four questions 'cause we don't want to leave anything to chance, but it's about, do you have some autonomy, some agency over how you do your work?

So the methods that you use, the processes that you use and so on. So that's what that concept is about. And it's about, as much as possible, trying to give people autonomy over methods. So what we talk about is, it's really important that people clear about the end goal, what it is they're trying to achieve, and then trying to give people a little bit of latitude, a little bit of autonomy, a bit of agency about how they get to that end goal. So that's what that concept is about.

Okay, thank you for that. Michelle asks, how do you stop Zoom fatigue? I think it's something that we're all gonna suffer from, you know, replacing one-on-one meetings and gatherings with staring down the screen and not knowing who's at the other end and what's going on.

Yeah. There are a number of factors that can enhance Zoom fatigue, and they can be things like, just the fact that, normally when you're physically in the office, you'd get up and walk to another meeting or you would have somebody can see that you're in another meeting, so they know that you're busy. And so, you know, they'll give you a little break before your next meeting. Of course, with Zoom, we don't necessarily have those things, and so we often end up in this back-to-back Zoom meetings.

So doing things like, you know, making sure everyone understands you might be five minutes late to the meeting, or, of course, scheduling a five-minute break if you can, between meetings. Sometimes that doesn't happen of course. I know one team, for example, just have an implicit agreement that for those first five minutes of a meeting, they'll just chat and no one minds if people come in late, because they know that this is sometimes what happens.

But another thing that's important is to recognize that some of the fatigue that comes from Zoom meetings is the fact that even though Zoom is great, you know, you can see people, it still requires more mental resources than talking with someone face-to-face, because you don't get perfect, you can't see people when they're not on the screen, and you're having to make a lot more guesses about people's emotional state. It's more mentally demanding to try and figure out emotional cues and things like that when you're on Zoom than when you're face-to-face.

So for that reason, I actually recommend in that blog, you know, sometimes turn off your camera actually, just go to audio, that actually can really help with Zoom fatigue, because you're not having to be on stage, because in some sense, when you're on the camera, you are on stage and that takes emotional resources. So step off the stage, turn off your camera sometimes, don't do your emails of course at the same time, that's not gonna help, but you know, just reduce that load on you a little bit. And there are other tips in the blog that you can check out.

Sharon, as we're headed to the closing minutes of your presentation, Helen asks, and if you do have a question, please get to the chat box ASAP, and we'll try to get to them as soon as we can, in the time that we have left. Helen asks, do you think connection will come back? You know, I think, a lot of us are feeling a bit disconnected, a bit isolated at times, but will we get that connection back?

I guess it depends a little bit on some of those factors that I've been talking about. How do we create that community back in the office? So I think one of the dangers is that yeah, because people have now adapted to working from home and got quite used to it, you know, it's sometimes challenging for people to then want to come into the office.

And then, of course, they make the effort and they come in and there's no one here, there's nothing happening. One of the blogs that I did was about the Four F's of facilitating return. And you know, one of them was fun, actually. And you know, maybe just having a bit more attention, to going to lunch together, or setting up some informal opportunities to interact, if they're not naturally happening.

So we might need to be proactive as leaders and as organisations in building the connection. And we might also need to be proactive ourselves, because yeah, you can get a bit complacent, and a bit sort of out of the habit.

So some people, you know, have gone that way and they sort of lost, forgotten how to connect with people. And it's just easier not to, and it's easier just to go online or whatever. Those people are gonna, you know, maybe watch that high quality connection blog. Other people, of course, are desperate to connect and can't wait. But yeah, I think my overarching message is, you know, we might need to just give it some attention, recognizing that it requires learning almost some new routines again. So thanks for that question, that was great.

Yeah, and you've touched on all issues about connection, and that probably leads us into this question. Have you got tips on how to encourage or approach someone who doesn't want to come back at all, even say one day a week, whether they're scared, they're timid, lost confidence, whatever the issue is, they just don't want to come back to work?

Yeah, good question. And again, I think the blog that I did on the Four F's, you know, we talk about fear, fun, I've forgotten the other two now, flexibility, and flexibility is about, recognizing that people will have different needs at the moment. Some will be very anxious about, you know, catching COVID on the bus or whatever. So I think just trying to be flexible to begin with and allow people, recognizing that people might have genuine fears. I think probably trying to understand that person's motivation.

Yeah, is it worry? Is it fear of COVID? Is it just, you know, that they've got into the habit of being at home? I know that when we transitioned back to the work after, you know, multiple months, it took me sometime to get a new habit of coming in, 'cause you just, you know, it's great to get up in the morning and not have to, you know, not have to get properly dressed and do your ironing and all that sort of thing. And honestly, I would say, it took me at least three weeks to just get back into the routine, and then I was just as happy coming into work.

So, you know, it might be again that, you know, people need to ease into it. In the end, you know, the work needs to be done. And so it is about people recognizing that you don't have complete autonomy to just decide exactly what you want to do, it's about a balanced level of autonomy, but in the context of meeting your work goals.

So if he need to come into work to work, and that includes interacting with other people and stuff, then you as a leader, you know, have the right to have those conversations, but just being flexible, and taking that person's perspective around, you know, what might be some of the blocks and seeing if you can problem solve and help them to, you know, work out a pathway to do that.

Thank you, Sharon. Carolyn asks, in the SMART model, where would process, tech and governance issues come into the impacts on people's well-being, such as lack of responsiveness of leaders or poor governance, highly manual processes that are outdated?

I guess that, I guess I didn't really talk today about what organisations need to be doing from a SMART work design perspective, and that was really just partly because of the time constraints of today's talk, but in a sense, good SMART work design is a sort of tripartite responsibility, almost, between the organisation and those bigger policies and processes, and technologies, and then the leader, and then the individual. And it's not, sometimes leaders can't influence those bigger things, and I think some of those were mentioned in that question. You know, the processes for example, might need radically overhauling, but those processes might be deeply embedded into the technologies.

And that might not be something that the leader can change. It might only be something that can be changed by, you know, at an organisational level or with senior leadership getting involved. So look, I think there's no easy answer to that question, but recognizing that SMART work design is influenced by those bigger elements as well, and sometimes, to get SMART work design, you have to change those things too. And that's harder. That's actually more challenging. That's a topic for another presentation. Yeah, it's a very good question. And I do talk about that a lot, but it's a big topic because it means, really understanding the systems and the processes that are driving the work and then shifting them, and that, we're talking power, we're talking all sorts of big topics there.

We'll hold you to that maybe for another session. Lastly, to finish up, Arlene says, thanks and lots to think about and discuss. And Carrie shares with us that she developed a chronic health condition last year. If it weren't for work from home, she would have had to give up work or reduce days. Work from home has made it possible for her to work. So it's really, really important, Sharon.

I completely agree. And that's why I'm saying, we don't want to throw that baby out of the bath, you know, when we move forward. There's enormous benefits to be gained from working home. There are challenges too, and I've covered some of those, but there are benefits and we do not, and increasing accessibility to people with chronic health conditions or disabilities is one of those very important benefits, so we do not want to throw that baby out. Thank you.

Professor Sharon Parker, time is of the essence. Thank you for sharing your presentation and your wisdom in the Q and A session today.

Thank you so much, Chris. It's been my pleasure.

All right. And thank you to everyone for joining us today for our third Safe Work Month Online Series Event. We hope you have learned a lot from these events and are able to share your learnings with your colleagues. I want to remind you that today's presentation recording will be available through the portal. Keep an eye out for it in the next week or so. We have our very last short talk with Naomi Armitage next week. She will be looking at how fostering a culture of health and safety is no longer seen as nice to have, but a necessity and foundation for the overall performance of a business.

Make sure you sign up for that. To keep the Safe Work Month momentum going, why not visit, to access a full range of industry and topic-specific video case studies, podcasts, speaker recordings, and webinars, and films to help you take action to improve your WHSM return to work outcomes. These resources are free to download and share, so I encourage you to share them with your staff, and of course your networks. Have a good day everyone. Remember, Work Safe, Home Safe. We leave you now with a word from our event sponsor, No More Pain Ergonomics.

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