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Home truths on the future of work

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The Federal Government has outlined clear plans to awaken the economy from its virus-induced slumber by July – with workers returning to office environments a key part of measures designed to bring back a level of normality.

But how will employers, including insurers and brokers, manage this while the search for a vaccine goes on and social distancing measures remain?

And could the forced flexibility of the pandemic lead to a permanent change in working practices as employees and employers realise that it is possible to work remotely and get the job done?

The short-term challenge cannot be underestimated. Step three of the Government’s roadmap, scheduled for July, highlights an expectation that “all Australians return to work with physical distancing and hygiene”.

The Safe Work Australia website provides comprehensive information to help employers prepare, while reminding them of their obligations under work health safety laws.

“You must eliminate the risk of exposure to COVID-19 if reasonably practicable,” it says.

Workers can be protected through physical distancing, workplace hygiene policies, requiring employees to stay home when sick, and cleaning the workplace “regularly and thoroughly”, the website says.

The exact timescale of the return, and the lifting of other lockdown measures, will be left to the states and territories, but managers of large insurers and brokers see potential problems ahead.

Entire teams wouldn’t fit into existing floorspace with social distancing measures in place – current rules demand four square metres for every person.

There will also be issues getting to work if distancing is applied on public transport – not to mention the lifts in high-rise CBD buildings.

Solutions could include a continuation of home-working for many, or split teams and staggered starts.

As reported by insuranceNEWS.com.au last week, Willis Towers Watson recommends the appointment of dedicated COVID-19 officers to assess workplaces and enforce distancing and hygiene measures.

“Home working will have to remain part of the solution while there is no vaccine and social distancing is still required,” one insurance industry source told insuranceNEWS.com.au.

“No-one’s got the floorspace to social-distance their entire workforce in the office environment.

“If the current distancing rules are applied to your floor area then there is no way all the people that used to be there could be there.

“There are a lot of issues around public transport and restrictions on lift usage as well. If only one person is allowed in a lift then it’s going to take people hours to get up to their floor.”

National Insurance Brokers Association (NIBA) CEO Dallas Booth says safety of staff “is the number one issue”.

He believes small and medium-size brokers could bring in safe office conditions but fears larger broker firms in office towers “will face real challenges”.

NIBA itself has no immediate plans to return to the office and staff will continue to work from home for now.

“We are on the 11th floor of a north Sydney office building which already has queues for the lifts,” Mr Booth said.

“If it’s one person at a time in each lift there will be queues down the street.”

Putting the practicalities aside, could home working actually suit the industry better?

A KMPG report published last week predicts that the “rapid and large-scale shift” to remote working could be permanent.

“Working remotely during the coronavirus crisis has quickly become the new norm, and one that won’t dissipate quickly – rather, remote working (both part-time and full-time) will rise across all industries,” it says.

“This will include industries such as financial services and the public sector, which have typically been office-bound and challenged by remote working at scale.”

Enhanced technology such as 5G, “mass adoption” of video-conferencing apps, and the attraction of reduced costs will accelerate the transformation.

Deloitte proposes a two-track response to the challenge.

Partner Michael Williams, who works with financial services industry clients in all areas of Human Capital, told insuranceNEWS.com.au the insurance industry should be “very cautious” when assessing the risks of a return to the office.

But he says COVID-19 has also brought an opportunity for organisations to “rethink the future of work” to secure cost savings, accelerate transformation, and access greater diversity of talent.

Partner Robbie Robertson, who manages Deloitte’s own virtual office, says the advantages of a shift in mindset are clear, not just from a cost and talent perspective but also from an environmental standpoint.

“We were losing people, or not accessing talent, because those people did not happen to be near one of our CBD offices,” he said.

The impact on the environment caused by “an abundance of travel”, brought home by the “horrible situation” of summer bushfires across Australia, is also a significant consideration, he says.

How, when and to what extent the insurance industry returns to the office environment is still unclear, and is likely to remain so for some weeks yet.

But experts agree that companies that consider the opportunities as well as the challenges, and the long-term as well as the immediate, are likely to emerge from this crisis ahead of the competition.