More bosses want their teams back ‘in the office’ and are expected to further crackdown on return-to-work mandates in 2024, despite compelling evidence that flexible work remains one of the most important levers to attract and retain talent, boost engagement, productivity and wellbeing.
That’s according to a number of commentators and surveys in recent weeks, highlighting how this office return will shape workplace trends in 2024.
But employers pulling back on remote working options is just one of the battlegrounds set to reshape workplace culture this year in Australia.
Other defining factors will stem from how employers respond to pay transparency, with the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) publishing the gender pay gaps of employers with more than 100 team members in late February. New legislation requirements around Respect@Work and WHS psycho-social hazards have also come into effect.
There is also greater demand and attention on employers to address domestic and family violence, rethink paid and unpaid leave options, better support the differing inter-generational employee health, care and wellbeing needs, and address the impact of the cost of living crisis on team members.
One thing for sure is that how effectively employers choose to rise to meet these modern workplace standards and measure the impact will define their ability to future-proof their workforce.
As such, some of the workplace trends predicted for 2024 will present an opportunity for the most attuned employers to secure an advantage for sustaining their workforce to underpin growth and productivity.
Here’s what the best and smartest employers will do in 2024.
Document and demonstrate flexibility in hybrid and return-to-work mandates
The ‘fair’ employers encouraging more employees to work from the office more will do so by offering a compelling reason for making the trip that doesn’t rely on unfair incentives that create a growing opportunity gap between those who can and can’t easily access and afford to workfrom an office due to care and proximity factors.
They will also offer clear and documented flexibility guidelines for managers to ensure their teams are not being unfairly impacted by hybrid work structures. Employees should be given long notice periods on any mandated changes with enough time to adjust their current arrangements. They should also have access to emergency care offerings to support their care responsibilities.
Meanwhile, fair employers will also plan and get creative around how they bring their people together for in-person opportunities. They will ensure there is purpose in asking their people to commute and recognise that commuting for ‘presenteeism-sake’ is not cost or time effective.
Publish clear budgets and targets to close gender pay gaps
Employers are preparing for the impact of having their gender pay gaps made public, with WGEA promising to release such figures for employers with more than 100 team members in February.
Facing internal and potential public backlash, we can expect to see employers moving fast to mitigate and downplay the issue.
But fair employers will respond to pay inequality in direct and straightforward ways. They will publish and acknowledge the gaps, highlight how they are introducing accountability measures to sort it out and outline a budget to be spent on closing the worst of such gaps immediately.
Address employee mental health and loneliness
Employers must consider the mental health of team members in ways that go beyond offering access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).
While reactive measures provided through EAPs are still important, in 2024 the best employers will issue more proactive avenues for addressing and measuring mental health. This could come through initiatives to mitigate the risk of burnout and overwork, training for managers and team members and putting greater effort into job design, limiting hours of work and ways of working smarter not harder.
Loneliness is a related and growing concern for employers, particularly given 2023 research finding that one in six Australians feel “extremely lonely”, with those aged 18 to 24 most likely to report feeling often or always lonely, at 38 per cent.
Addressing loneliness shouldn’t be an excuse to demand team members return to the office, but it could see employers using in-person meetups and events to check in on mental health, create physical connections, and support relationship-building between team members.
Calm Business suggests a number of strategies for employers to address loneliness, including specific empathy training for managers to foster an environment of psychological safety, benchmarking and tracking loneliness in the organisation, rewarding employees for supporting others and creating and supporting initiatives like social clubs, employee resource groups, and opportunities to support inclusion and belonging.
More emphasis and clarity on the ‘S’ in ESG
When it comes to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) frameworks, companies have typically focused on the environmental and governance factors and an overall sustainability approach.
In 2024, the smarter employers will put more consideration into the ‘S’ in ESG: that being the ‘Social’ aspect that runs through to the HR departments and DEI teams and sees employers striving to create a “Socially Responsible Workplace” that understands their role in supporting employees to balance their paid work with their care and family responsibilities.
As we have found in surveying hundreds of organisations measured against the National Work + Family Standards, most employers find they have work to do to address this social aspect of ESG, in fact two-thirds fail the initial benchmarking assessment.
Increasingly, we will see ESG frameworks incorporating the move to support team members, especially through things like elevating the importance (while improving policies) of paid parental leave, support for new parents, and supporting those with a wide range of caring responsibilities.
In enabling flexibility, the best employers will further develop guides and training to embed flexible work practices across their full organisational hierarchy. They will further encourage more fathers to take paid parental leave after initially removing ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ and gender labels on their PPL policies. They will better formalise and communicate their care-related policies and establish clear formal family mental health and wellbeing policies. They will create opportunities to support team members with referrals and access to services that can support their families, such as aged care services, disability services and childcare services. And they will formalise and budget to provide emergency backup care options for team members.
The ‘S’ in ESG may come into conflict with other predictions for 2024 – such as the expectation that more workplaces will demand team members return to the office more days each week. However the best employers will see the opportunity to elevate their move to be more socially responsible.
Opportunities to learn and play with AI
The AI revolution took a firm hold in 2023 and the focus is set to get stronger in 2024.
Many businesses are already leveraging AI to improve productivity, respond to customers and produce and test products.
The smarter employers will take active measures to give team members the opportunity to learn more about how AI can support their work, to experiment with it, and to offer information and knowledge on what more they can be doing to understand AI in line with their future career aspirations.
These employers should also be able to respond to and anticipate concerns around AI-related job losses – to give team memes reassurances and otherwise the opportunity for upskilling and training in different areas where their jobs may be at risk of AI in the future.
Training and rewarding managers on empathy
This year’s best employers will actively support and enable leaders to develop and deploy their skills in communication, conflict resolution and empathy.
These so-called “soft” skills complement all other trends mentioned above. They are necessary for supporting the mental health and care-related responsibilities of team members, for dealing with changes around remote work, and for supporting hybrid and disparate teams. These skills are also necessary for work that is increasingly being dominated by AI.
Empathy is especially critical for leaders to build truly collaborative, open teams that trust each other and not only respect the differences their colleagues bring but actually see such differences as critical to decision-making.
Position leadership as critical for embedding family-friendly work practices
Great workplace policies are only as good as the leaders who support them.
In 2024, we will see the most family-friendly employers in Australia focusing on the role of all levels of leadership in supporting the robust policies they have been developing and evolving over the past few years.
Leadership around workplace policies starts with supporting and actively communicating the why behind such policies, and also involves leaders demonstrating how they are accessing and using workplace flexibility and paid leave options.
Seek regular feedback from employees and act on it
Feedback is tough to hear but necessary for an employer to respond to the changing needs of their workforce.
Regular feedback is an opportunity for employers to respond to continued economic change, to understand if current initiatives are delivering, and to identify risks and weak spots across the organisation. That’s why one key trend we’ll see from the best employers will be robust and regular evaluation processes, like utilising the Family Friendly Workplaces benchmarking assessment, as well as commitments to act on the findings.
If more employers act on some or all of the trends mentioned above, we’ll have a much happier, more diverse and more productive Australian workforce. Great leadership can make it happen.
By Emma Walsh, Founder, Family Friendly Workplaces