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Coming in to collaborate, staying home to concentrate: EY’s data-driven approach to flexible work

As organisations gradually return to office-based working, the pressure is on to meet employees’ new expectations.

People are questioning whether their daily commute to work and the hours they’ve been putting in are worth it. They also wonder whether their role is having a positive impact on their organisation and the world.

According to Microsoft’s newly released 2022 Work Trend Index, employees across the globe have a new ‘worth it’ equation. A total of 53 per cent are saying they’re more likely to prioritise their health and wellbeing over work than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic.

This new attitude requires organisations to stop the one-size-fits-all approach and adopt an agile mindset to embrace new and less structured ways of working.  Leaders need to listen to what staff want when it comes to redesigning the workplace.

At EY, one of the world’s leading professional services firms, employees want to retain the flexibility they had during the pandemic.

“A lot of people found they enjoyed being at home with their families,” says Kate Hillman, People, Place and Culture Leader for EY Oceania. “They enjoyed not always being in the office or on a plane. It shifted their perspectives about what they need and want.”

Kate Hillman, People, Place and Culture Leader for EY Oceania

EY Oceania was one of the first large organisations in Australia to transition its people to working from home at the start of the pandemic, quickly relocating 9,000-plus team members across seven offices. Hillman says the organisation was able to move quickly because it already had technology such as Microsoft Teams in place, and because its employees were used to working in a hybrid way.

“It wasn’t a phenomenal change for us, but there were parts of our business that were less comfortable with that as an idea,” she says.

As well as retaining flexibility, Hillman says EY’s people want their work to have meaning and purpose and are more conscious of their need to see each other.

“There are a lot of requests from our people about getting together and connecting with each other,” she says.

“We want to ‘earn’ their commute and make our offices places where people want to be and where they can connect with clients, with each other and with leadership. We’re very comfortable with coming in to collaborate and staying at home to concentrate.”

Unlocking flexibility with actionable insights

Hillman is focused on finding new and different ways to not only retain but increase the level of flexibility available to EY’s employees, particularly for asynchronous working.

EY piloted Microsoft Viva Insights with its Australian team members in early 2021 to uncover new data on the impact of hybrid work on their engagement and productivity, as well as their wellbeing and relationships with one another. Viva Insights is part of Microsoft Viva, the employee experience platform within Microsoft Teams designed to help people connect, focus, learn, and thrive at work.

“What is great is that we saw a lot more one-on-one time between leaders and their individual team members,” Hillman says.

EY also found that ad hoc communication channels such as Teams and messaging platforms were being used much more broadly in a hybrid work setting.

“We saw a decrease in emails as well,” Hillman adds. “One of the working patterns we picked up, and one reason why we are moving to more ad hoc communication in Teams is because 60 per cent of emails that we send go to one recipient.

“However, that time in ad hoc calls remains pretty low, and we think that people are still overscheduling and not perhaps really adapting to that more agile way of working. So, we’ve still got a bit of a way to go.”

Hillman sees a lot of value to be gained from Viva Insights and EY is expanding the pilot to the rest of Oceania.

“Being able to gather the evidence around what’s working and what’s not working, being able to look at those trends and then say that’s where people want to go, and being able to seize the moment instead of forcing something, is really powerful.

“These are large social evolutions, and anyone who rushes ahead of the data really runs the risk of becoming the Beta tape of the VHS world.

That’s why these insights are so valuable; because of the speed that everything is moving at the moment. That transition from the annual pulse survey to being able to see what’s going on in the business in real time is really helpful because we don’t have time to wait around anymore. And people’s sentiment changes so quickly.

Reducing the cognitive load

While a rise in asynchronous collaboration between team members presents plenty of upside for flexibility, there is still a risk of people burning out.

Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index found that over the past two years, weekly meeting time for the average Teams user has risen 252 per cent, and chats sent per person each week is up 32 per cent. In addition, the average duration of a workday has increased by 46 minutes, and after-hours and weekend work are up 28 per cent and 14 per cent, respectively.

Hillman says that EY is focused on trying to ease the pressure on its people of being ‘always on’ by reducing their cognitive load.

“Our people’s brains are the engine of our business, and the load they carry predicts how well our business is done in terms of the quality of our work and staff retention,” she says.

Returning to the office also has new considerations. The organisation has rolled out an app with innovative, location-aware features to give EY staff and visitors a frictionless experience when interacting with its smart building facilities and services. These features include the ability to find a colleague or team member, book meeting rooms instantly or in advance, or order food and beverages to be delivered to your desk.

EY is also about to pilot AI-powered technology designed to create resilient workplaces.

“It provides personalised recommendations on which location and workspace best fit your needs for the day, based on your calendar and your connections,” Hillman explains. “And if you accept the recommendations, the assistant does all the booking for you.

“It’s not designed to overrule because you can just not accept the preferences and book something else, but it means you’re not having to go to the trouble of doing all of that yourself. It’s just one less thing for people to worry about.”

The firm has also introduced ‘unplugged’ days – synchronised days off for the whole team in Oceania to reduce the number of emails and missed calls waiting for them when they return to work. EY also urges employees to only spend a third of their day on camera where possible.

“We think that’s best for their wellbeing,” Hillman says. “If you’re asking them to be on camera all the time, that’s exhausting for people.

“We’re also doing a lot of leadership training around empathetic leadership and servant leadership, and recognising that people are not telecommuting to work. We’re actually telecommuting into their homes a lot of the time.

“That takes a different level of trust and respect in the way we work with our people.”