How a Pandemic Re-Defined Work-Life Balance

08 April 2021 John Killick

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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to work and home life across the globe. Many companies were forced to act swiftly to safeguard employees and migrate to a new way of working that even the most extreme business-continuity plans hadn’t envisioned.

Across many industries, company C Suites will use the lessons from this large-scale work-from-home experiment to reimagine how work is done — and what role offices should play—in creative and bold ways.

I’ll focus on the financial services industry as this is where the majority of actuaries work and play and take a look at how our clients have risen to the challenge whether they are large or small Australian companies or part of global entities dealing with different impacts in different locations.

Before the pandemic, the conventional wisdom had been that offices were critical to productivity, culture, and winning the war for talent. We saw companies competing intensely for prime office space in major locations (e.g. Barangaroo in Sydney) and focused on solutions which promoted collaboration with flexibility (e.g. hot-desking in open-office designs).

Enforced working from home has challenged the conventional norms. Many employees liberated from long commutes and travel have found more productive ways to spend that time, enjoyed greater flexibility in balancing their personal and professional lives, and decided that they prefer to work from home rather than the office.

Open-minded companies are looking ahead to the challenges post-pandemic. As vaccine availability and roll-out frees up people’s movements more, it is becoming clear that things won’t return to pre-pandemic status inside the office. Many companies will require mask-wearing at congested areas (e.g. at elevators) and work spaces will be redesigned to ensure physical distancing. As a result, we foresee that attitudes toward workplaces will probably continue to evolve.

We’re seeing a variety of responses from companies as we go through this ‘return to work’ phase. For example, some will be working on a rotation roster (e.g. Team Blue in one week and Team Red in the next), others want each Team members to be in three days per week but not everyone in at the same time so a roster of days in the office is being monitored, and there are others who are asking their people to move to full time in the office across the second quarter of 2021.

Yes, we are dealing with just the actuarial sector, but generally it applies across each company on an Australia-wide basis.

We recognise that every organization and culture is different, and so are the circumstances of every individual employee.

Many have enjoyed this new flexible experience; others are fatigued by it. Sometimes, the same people have experienced different emotions and levels of happiness or unhappiness at different times. The productivity of the employees who do many kinds of jobs has increased; for others it has declined. Many forms of virtual collaboration are working well; others are not. Some people are getting mentorship and participating in casual, unplanned, and important conversations with colleagues; others are missing out.

There is an increasing push to reconstruct how work is done within the confines of the culture and vision of each company.

For companies which simply transplanted existing processes into a remote working context and just imitating what had been done before the pandemic and it is working well enough, it is unlikely that they will continue to evolve their workplace dynamic to any great degree in the next few years.

Other companies have taken the opportunity of the enforced change to re-envision working practices and identify what working practices can be ‘flexed up’ within their businesses to take advantage of the new working model.

Financial Services companies are notoriously conservative so at SKL we’re not expecting major changes. However, we are seeing some companies embrace the options this new-found flexibility affords them.

Generally, the flexibility of working from home as well as the office across each work week is being embraced by 80-90% of the clients we deal with. Some much more than others.

We are already being asked by potential candidates, when discussing a job with them, “What is the hiring company’s flexible working attitude?’.We can see this flexible working requirement lasting long after the pandemic.

An unsurprising additional development, given the actuarial field always seems to have a candidate shortage, is hiring companies exploring whether this location flexibility will yield access to new pools of talent.

Already we have a number of clients who state a preferred location but are willing to be flexible if it increases the talent pool from which to draw good people.

There are definitely some candidates who would like to take advantage of this and work from home 100% of the time and base themselves quite distant from their employer.

Personally, I don’t think that will be that common even given how well remote working has gone through the pandemic.

However, I will still ask employers if they will consider it for contract and permanent work as it does vary from company to company.