University of Melbourne Magazine

Working on tomorrow

  • Professor Peter Gahan, left, and Dr Jesse Olsen. (Picture: Darren Howe)

    Professor Peter Gahan, left, and Dr Jesse Olsen. (Picture: Darren Howe)

    Research fellow Dr Jesse Olsen says there will always be jobs where such methods won’t work, but for those where they are appropriate, they can save money and present new opportunities. “Technology allows us to get lots of people to work together who might otherwise not be able to because of their personal circumstances, whether it is family commitments or because they live in different places,” he says. “If you get a lot of different types of people together they share different perspectives and you come up with different outcomes.”

    It’s the “getting together” that makes the difference, regardless of whether it’s in person or over Skype. Olsen cites the 2013 decision by the CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, to put an end to staff working from home. “It’s not that she is against working from home, she is against working by yourself. To get the benefits of diversity you have got to get the people together. Collaboration is the key.”

    This is where technology can help. It’s expected that the next generation of office telephones will allow videoconferencing at your desk, and the research has proved that if people can see each other while they talk, even on a screen, it’s almost as effective as meeting face-to-face. “There is still something in us that wants to be with other people. It’s what makes us human,” Olsen says.

    But even with the latest technology, creating serendipitous “watercooler moments” when staff are not in the same building is hard, Gahan admits. “If we are working from home or virtually we miss out on the chance interactions with others in the workplace which often lead to problems being solved and new insights and ideas.”

    Flexibility brings risks for employees, too, in the form of work-related stress. “We know that when we have less structured forms of working that people find it much harder to balance work and life. Work takes over,” Gahan says.

    “Organisations have to think about what that means for their workplace health and safety liabilities and the impact on employee productivity in the long run. How sustainable is it to have staff working in this way?” There’s evidence that when employees feel they have insufficient control over how they work, their risk of depression doubles. And everyone pays – research by Professor Tony LaMontagne (see right) has put the cost of work related mental health problems at more than $700 million a year.

    Stress-related WorkCover claims are the only ones on the rise. That’s something bosses need to be mindful of when introducing new working practices, Olsen says. “Ultimately what we should be doing is creating real flexibility, not forcing a new way of working. You might be lauded for putting flexible working in place in when in reality you are just creating a different rigidity.”