What can be learned from New Zealand’s return to work

The island nation is on the other side of its COVID-19 crisis and has reopened its economy. Here are crucial business takeaways from the Kiwis’ restart.

Learning from NZ's return to work

In just a short space of time, the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed seismic change in the way we work. And now, as staff tentatively return to workplaces, businesses are wondering what happens next?

The experience of New Zealand offers some unique insights.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response to “go hard, go early” paid off. Closing the border and a strict seven-week lockdown has seen this nation mostly control the virus.

Since the easing of lockdown restrictions began in April, the country has steadily reopened for business, and by early June, virtually all restrictions had been lifted, except for border control.

So, what can be learned from the Kiwi experience about return to work?  Here’s my top four:

1. Plan for a hybrid, more flexible way of working.

While many employers were initially concerned about whether staff would be as productive working from home, the compulsory experiment triggered by COVID-19 proves they are.

A  University of Otago study of more than 2,500 Kiwis discovered that 89% wanted to continue working remotely after the end of lockdown. The study found that participants welcomed the increased flexibility working from home offered. Not having to face a daily commute or traffic jams were the top advantages identified by participants. Also mentioned were the positive environmental impact with reduced emissions and fewer costs from not having to go work.

And when it comes to productivity while working remotely, study participants were very positive. Most people (73%) felt that they were equally or more productive. And 66% found it easy or somewhat easy to work remotely.

There’s a noticeable move to a more blended work culture in New Zealand. Prime Minister Ardern has encouraged employers to think about whether a four-day working week would fit their workplaces.

Many companies are still feeling their way. It’s no longer a given that current and future hires need to be site-based. Staff have shown remote working is viable—and for many people, offers a better work-life balance. But there are also cases of staff feeling disenfranchised by the lack of a central, physical space. Not one size fits all.

2. Prepare for “back-to-work” blues.

Getting back into the work routine takes some adjusting. In New Zealand, it was estimated that 10% of workers pivoted to a sudden work-from-home situation (source: BusinessNZ) while others waited patiently to be able to return to the workplace.

When New Zealanders did return to work in early June—which most companies phased in across a two- or three-week period—there were murmurs that motivation was a problem, especially if staff felt isolated or anxious.

Possible indicators of a motivational problem, or worse still, a mental health issue, include the following:

  • new performance issues
  • lateness or poor engagement in meetings
  • problems meeting deadlines
  • failing to respond to messages and communications

According to Mercer’s report Return to a New Normal, one in three employees experience mental health issues because of social isolation and economic anxiety.

In New Zealand, many companies created wellness resources for employees which included tips for returning to work, self-help checklists, or helplines, ensuring employees knew how and where to access professional help.

Promoting a positive work environment is key. Managers must check in with their staff regularly and encourage colleagues to look out for each other. Staff surveys and snap polls are just some of the digital techniques to monitor well-being, as well as one-to-one meetings.

3. Embrace direct communications.

The New Zealand government garnered praise for its clear and consistent communications. During lockdown, the ubiquitous “Stay home, stay safe, save lives” mandate was faithfully adhered by the “team of 5 million.”

And when the time came for Kiwis to venture outside their front door and head back to work, the government repeatedly used the mantra “Be kind.”

This simple phrase was communicated throughout workplaces, praising the actions of people positively reinforcing the right behaviors. As such, there’s been a resurgence in the popularity and usage of intranets. Many companies have used previously untouched intranet features, such as notifications, blogs, instant messaging, forums, to reassure and repeat important staff communications.

4. Increase adoption of new technology.

Technology turned out to be a savior for Kiwi companies. Staff that could not meet up as a team could rely heavily on videoconferencing and chat tools instead. Sales deals could not be closed in person anymore, but contracts could still be digitally signed. Paper-based documents could no longer circulate the office with sticky notes attached, however an on-line shared file system closed the gap.

But as the Otago University study revealed, opportunities to collaborate and communicate with colleagues was the second biggest challenge for participants. “Zoom fatigue” was a common complaint. Many of the study’s participants claimed that they were attending more virtual meetings than ever.

Since those early days, staff now know what tools to use and when. For example, a group instant message is a quicker and more effective platform for resolving simple queries than email or a large-scale video call.

The emerging new normal is a hybrid model, one which supports on-site working alongside telecommuting, where precise internal communications matter more than ever before and that technology has become further entrenched in our day-to-day work—some losses but mostly gains.

And everyone seems to be a little kinder to each other.

Steve Hockey is the CEO of MyHub Intranet Solutions, a world-leading, cloud-based software provider.

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