This changing relationship between staff and employers emerged as a new frontier of work, the research found.
One participant in the COVID-19 Employer Study, said: “If there are more productive and better ways that people can work, we really want to explore that.”
Released today, the findings are based on in-depth interviews with 32 leaders at 28 organisations across Australia, spanning industries including retail, transport, advertising, government and insurance.
“The employers in our study showed they could respond quickly and responsibly to the challenges COVID-19 presented,” said Professor Marian Baird, Head of the Discipline of Work & Organisation Studies.
Younger employees were more likely to want to return to working in the office, while older workers easily adapted to technologies that enabled them to work from home.
“Many innovative and thoughtful changes - that may not have seemed possible before the pandemic - were introduced to assist staff and to maintain business. These responses showcase best practice and can potentially set a new standard for the future assuming businesses don’t snap back to old ways.”
Many employers reported a rapid change to product and service delivery and adapted staffing requirements in response to pressures on their businesses and fluctuations in consumer demand. Several made redundances, but a more common response was redeployment of staff to in-demand parts of the business.
“There has been widespread job loss during COVID-19, but the employers in our study described quite diverse and creative strategies to retain staff in spite of dramatically changing business needs,” report co-author Associate Professor Myra Hamilton said.
Around 70 percent of participants were from large organisations across seven states and territories. Interviews took place during Victoria’s second COVID-19 outbreak, between May and October last year.
Despite older employees being at higher risk if they contract the virus, more than a third of employers told the researchers they were more concerned about younger staff. Younger staff were more likely to struggle working from home, with some living in share houses or with parents who were also working from home.
Report co-author and PhD candidate Lisa Gulesserian said: "Employers told us they saw very few differences between how employees of different generations responded to working from home.
“The few employers who did see differences said employees broke age stereotypes. For example, younger employees were more likely to want to return to working in the office, while older workers easily adapted to technologies that enabled them to work from home. This is a step towards busting age stereotypes that limit opportunities for workers of different generations."
One HR manager told the researchers: “We stopped assuming that certain age groups would have certain needs.”
The new report reveals the extent to which employers went the extra mile to support their employees’ health and wellbeing. In helping employees find time to tend to personal or family needs, most employers found these new, more flexible, ways of working could also be good for business.
“Many employers in our study said they were surprised by how easily everyone adapted to the changes forced on them by COVID so there is a new sense of adaptability in these organisations. As we face whatever 2021 has in store, it seems like many will be ready for whatever is thrown at them,” said Alison Williams, Research Associate and report co-author.
For the employers in this study, the pandemic saw a large shift in the relationship between them and their employees. Most employers navigated the uncertainty with greater concern for the individual needs of their staff, signalling a step towards more flexible and agile work environments.
The COVID-19 Employer Study was funded by the ARC Centre for Excellence in Population Ageing Research.