Vodafone predicts staff will spend up to 40 per cent of their working week at home.

As we emerge from the heaviest pandemic restrictions, an intriguing discussion has begun over what lockdown changes could become a permanent part of our working lives under "the new normal".

Everybody's been talking up the possibility of more flexi-time but now we're starting to get a more concrete idea of what that could look like.

"We're projecting our employees to spend between 20-40 per cent of working weeks connecting from their home office under the 'new normal'," Vodafone New Zealand chief people officer Jodie King says.

"For staff, that means more of an ability to work around their life and personal commitments. For example, if I have a half-hour commute from my house to the office, but I no longer had to do that because I'm working from home a couple of days, then I might be able to drop off my boys to football practice at 5.45pm.

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"Typically, I wouldn't have been able to do this, because I would have been working until 6pm."

The outbreak has provided something of a forced trial for extreme working-from-home. So how did it work out, in Vodafone's case? Did productivity tick up or down?

"Anecdotally, the feedback from both the executive and employees is that productivity has increased. So I think it has been a proving exercise," King says. "It really comes down to trust. I think that having been through something like this, employer, and leaders now know that it works.

"If you've got that base of trust, then why wouldn't you try to scale it up and help it become the new normal?"

Vodafone NZ chief people officer Jodie King. Photo/supplied
Vodafone NZ chief people officer Jodie King. Photo/supplied

But although she sees quite a dramatic rise in working from home, King adds: "I don't think this is the death of the office by any stretch of the imagination. You get so much stimulation with just those casual, quick corridor conversations, having lunch or having a coffee with somebody.

"Work environments have a really important part to play in people's social connections. So I think it would be a really bad outcome if people conducted work remotely the entire time. We're all on a continuum. Some people are a bit more introverted and some a bit more extroverted.

"I know, from my personal perspective, I really enjoy the interaction with people face-to-face, so I want a blended outcome."

Vodafone NZ chief executive Jason Paris told the audience at a recent Trans-Tasman Business Circle event that, historically, many organisations have stuck to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Now, he said, with the pandemic proving the effectiveness of remote working, enabled by New Zealand's world-class internet infrastructure, it's time to unlock the talent of the regions.

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Covid-19 means more companies are more open to where they locate new offices or, like Vodafone, they're now more open to hiring staff who live outside cities.

Another big change that could be on the way – Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently suggested a four-day week could help with work/life balance and boost domestic tourism during the re-build.

Some companies have been jolted into four-day work weeks, with reduced salaries, by temporary cost-cutting measures. The PM sees more of a permanent move on the Andrew Barnes model (he is the CEO of Perpetual Guardian which has been in the vanguard of the shortened week) – four days' work for a week's pay, enabled by productivity boosts.

Jarrod Haar, an organisational psychology expert and Professor of Human Resource Management at AUT, says an organisation could, say, have half its staff off on Friday and away on Monday.

"That would definitely allow greater engagement with domestic tourism," he says. "But I think it's a step most organisations will be a bit reluctant to embrace."

The primary goal of four-day week advocates like Barnes has been greater productivity in a shorter space of time to allow better work/life balance. Haar says the experience of the lockdown has shown this, for many, can be achieved by an increase in remote working and flexi-time.

AUT Human Resource Management Professor Jarrod Haar. Photo/supplied
AUT Human Resource Management Professor Jarrod Haar. Photo/supplied

It's still too early for a formal assessment but Haar's broad take is that more employers are now more open to flexi-time, and more working from home: "We'll see a lot and I think we'll see managers who perhaps, historically had a 'when Hell freezes' over resistant attitude now more willing to accept working from home."

He sees the Covid-inspired rise in working from home as a possible stepping stone to four-day weeks eventually.

"I think those two things could be taken together because workers can say, ''Hey look, I am reliable working from home when the boss is not around and me and my teammates are equally able to do our five days' work and four days between us covering each other'. That's how that four-day work week goes at [Andrew Barnes'] Perpetual Guardian.

"So I don't think employers will rush into the four-day week but it is related to working from home because both are focused on being productive."

Conversely, we've must stop automatically equating office time with productive time: "It's ridiculous to think 'Jarrod's a top employee. He's always here'," Haar says. "Sure. He's always here, but talking to everybody and drinking coffee all day."

Given more remote working will become the new normal for a lot of us, how should organisations prepare?

In the earliest days of the lockdown, Herald technology columnist Juha Saarinen warned many home offices were weak points in terms of security, with creaky modems and wi-fi routers and home computers that often had only limited or outdated protection against various online threats.

Similarly, many staff did not have the best type of broadband connection for their area or were not on the best type of mobile connection for working at home – or were on the move where the extra bandwidth and lower latency of 5G really comes into its own.

Now, with the initial hurly-burly of Level 4 and Level 3 behind us but working from home set to persist, it's a good time to take stock of your staff's remote working set-up, which was likely set up in a rush.

Now that you've got some breathing space, it's also a good time to see if your VPN (virtual private network) set-up or other connections between remote workers and your office can be tweaked for better performance.

For help with remote working solutions, visit www.vodafone.co.nz