It is business, but it’s far from usual. COVID-19 has transformed our ideas about how and where we work and put flexibility, adaptability and technology at the heart of the workplace. The way we work and how successful businesses in the future will be defined has changed forever – here are three thoughts on how.

Firstly, there is no “normal” when it comes to the workplace, what matters is maximum flexibility.

We’re all different. Some people are more introverted, some are more extroverted. We all have different personal circumstances and the organisations that will be successful in attracting and retaining talent will be those that can offer their employees maximum flexibility. In developing our thinking around flexible working Telstra is developing six personas based broadly around our people’s different role types, their technology needs, communication preferences along with individual considerations, challenges and expectations. This is about identifying the right solution for each person in our workplace, not a one size fits all, so our people can choose to work in a way that best suits them. Managing across personas increases complexity and adds more challenge to how leaders must manage but when you get it right, the payoff is so much higher.

Second, the humanity of our people will re-shape our culture.

Workplace culture has changed enormously during COVID and all for the better. The usual shields of business – the clothes, the offices, the hierarchies that we sometimes hide behind – have been stripped away and we have all got a better glimpse into each other’s real lives. It has certainly been a great equaliser as we all get to see each other’s partners, kids, pets and homes. The connections are real, the links genuine. The businesses that will be successful in the future will embrace their humanity and make it the foundation of their culture.

And third, our technology, tools and property plans need to supercharge our ability to do our best work.

Operationalising the workplace of the future means drawing together the threads of flexibility, adaptability and technology. It is a cross-functional, cross-company task and Telstra’s leaders from property, networks, IT and HR are considering our infrastructure, technology, tool and skills requirements through the lens of our employees’ experience, needs and expectations. The businesses that will be successful in the future will be able to think through flexible working in all its dimensions, and bring it to life through technology.

A new normal

Not long ago the biggest catalyst for workplace change was advances in digital technologies and connectivity. Many were alarmed jobs would be replaced by artificial intelligence, automation or robots. Those things have not gone away but COVID-19 has taken the future of work in a totally new direction, a direction that is increasingly virtual and remote rather than physical and centralised, a direction where a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday workday (physically at the office, for many of us) is suddenly hard to imagine.

The “new normal” for work will be flexible, geographically dispersed, and offer a choice of a hybrid of digital and physical tools and spaces that are tailored to your role and your technology needs, preferences and expectations. Work will be something you do, not somewhere you go.

At Telstra, this concept of flexibility will include our office-based staff but also extend to the many thousands of Telstra people who work in stores, install or repair connections at homes or businesses, take E000 calls or provide other critical services at secure facilities.

When COVID first hit, we moved our 25,000 Australian-based office employees to work-from-home to get ahead of things. We did that in a single weekend, more or less without a hitch. That was nearly six months ago and most – myself included – have not been in the office since.

Video meetings are now standard at Telstra. In July, as just one example, we ran more than 8 million Microsoft Teams calls. Management meetings, Board meetings, team meetings are now virtual including this year’s Annual General Meeting – a first in our 160 year history.

It is hard to imagine a bigger disruption to traditional work practices and yet the appetite for this type of flexibility is extraordinary. A recent employee survey showed more than 60% of our people believe they are more productive working from home and, on average, they would prefer to work from home around 3 days per week, compared to an average of 1.7 days prior to COVID.

We introduced All Roles Flex in 2014 but it has taken this pandemic to fundamentally shift us from a workforce that sees home working as a nice-to-do to a permanent fixture in the work-life juggle.

The top reasons our people cite for embracing this change are no commute time, greater flexibility on working hours and more time for exercise and family. There are still challenges (issues like mental health and domestic violence are very real) and we recognise that some people will want to return to the office as soon as they can while others do not have the choice such as those serving customers in-store.

Before COVID we trialled an agent@home model for Australian-based sales and service consultants from our call centres. Now all consultants can potentially work from home, shifting the conventional thinking on customer service roles.

There is no way to know exactly what the world will look like a year from now so we must accept this is our new normal and prepare for it.

Humanity in all its colour

If work is like the blood that flows through our veins then technology and collaboration tools are the connective tissue. However, as vital as they are it is the purpose, values and culture of a company that defines who we are. Through COVID this has been enriched by the humanity which we are now seeing on high-beam.

In two weeks’ time it will be six months since I set foot in the office. I certainly miss all those informal interactions – the opportunities to bump into people in the coffee shop or the side conversation before or after a meeting. Their absence cannot be replaced by technology alone. We all have our own small rituals and COVID has enabled us to better understand their bigger role in our psyche. In uncertain times, rituals give us comfort and confidence.

Working from home has truly broken down hierarchies in a way we could never have imagined previously. Teleconferencing means we are bringing people into our homes every day and they are seeing us in a way they never have before – with all of our issues, challenges and vulnerabilities.

In our efforts to keep connected, we are also asking each other how we are in meetings – and actually stopping and listening to the answer. The simple question “How are you” during a health pandemic is no longer a polite refrain but a symbol central to connecting us and looking out for each other.

From these simple acts of humanity, mental health, safety and wellbeing are now a foremost concern in how we manage our workplace and evolve our culture. Providing a safe work environment has always been fundamental but the increased focus on mental health is rightly pervading our outlook and is a key component of our new normal.

We need to be part of a tribe, to feel connected to each other and something bigger, with a purpose. The opening of the window into our humanity during COVID only enriches this.

Supercharging our best work with technology

Telecommunications networks and digital technology have been critical during the lockdown period, and the acceleration of the digital economy is now not only crucial to a fast economic recovery but is supercharging our people’s ability to do their best work.

The basics are obvious: what are the connectivity, applications and tool requirements – in the office, at home and on the move, for voice, for video and online collaboration?

Others are more complex and can involve anything from identity management to cyber security and our property portfolios. These are all important considerations with critical consequences if not managed well.

Like other large organisations, we operate large office buildings in CBDs around the country, many of which are now either largely empty or much-reconfigured to accommodate social distancing measures.

Our employees have told us they no longer want to be there Monday to Friday, that they see themselves coming in around two days a week to collaborate, see customers, socialise and build relationships with colleagues and to learn. There are many ideas around how this might work, from modifying existing facilities to cater for collaboration to a “hub and spoke model” that puts more office facilities closer to where employees live, including in suburban or regional areas rather than centralised in the CBD.

But in the new normal, more deeply understanding our people means we can enable them with technology, connectivity and physical space options to do their best work where and how it suits them.

This is the new normal

I have been in the workforce for more than 40 years and I have seen how work and the workplace has evolved. I have seen how roles change, how some have disappeared and how new technologies have brought forward new thinking around productivity, flexibility and engagement. I have also seen many changes in the nature of what constitutes a successful company.

Even before COVID it would have been naive to think technology was not going to continue to drive changes in our lives and in our workplaces – the real issue then is how do we respond and how we prepare ourselves for the future.

What COVID is showing us is that we are at our best when our workplaces offer maximum flexibility, when they enable us to let our humanity into our culture and when they combine the power of technology and connectivity. When they do that we will create a workplace that not only survives the new normal but thrives.