Christchurch quake highlights need for workplace flexibility

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Business continuity plans are a must for organisations, but new research into the impact of the Christchurch earthquake has shown workplace flexibility is what really counts.

Dr Noelle Donnelly and Dr Sarah Proctor-Thomson, researchers at the Centre for Labour, Employment and Work at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Management, came to the conclusion after studying the experiences of Inland Revenue employees who worked from home following the February 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch.
At the time of the February earthquake, Inland Revenue had just one central office of over 800 staff members in the centre of town. Access to the main office in the CBD was lost following the earthquake leaving the available senior managers to meet and assign new roles and tasks to staff.
While some jobs were relocated to Wellington and Auckland, and many staff assigned to different teams in various locations, teleworking was one of the key ways of getting everyone back to work.
“Prior to the earthquake, Inland Revenue had no formal programme of flexible work, so everything had to be developed immediately. This introduced a range of challenges, from getting the right hardware, working out how to manage and monitor people from a distance, and defining what kinds of tasks could be done at home. Policies and processes had to be developed quickly, often with limited lead-in time,” Proctor-Thomson said.
The success of it came down to the team leaders with the study showing team leaders played a vital role in influencing and shaping outcomes for workers and the organisation.
“Team leaders had to find new ways of communicating with dispersed workers, and keep things running despite their own individual circumstances,” Donnelly explained. “Interestingly, although many team leaders were reasonably positive about their own experience of teleworking after the earthquakes, their attitudes towards future use of telework was more measured.”
“For some team leaders they had to find new ways of managing their teams not based on visibility or presence in a central workplace.”
Other issues identified were isolation and reduced information sharing. Donnelly said that while some staff were able to have better control, independence and flexibility of their “disrupted lives” while working from home, they also missed the social interaction of the workplace.
Although there was a high level of interest in accessing flexible work arrangements in the future, employees unanimously told the researchers they would prefer a hybrid arrangement that involved a certain amount of face-to-face time in the office.
Donnelly and Proctor-Thomson recommend that workplaces make flexible work options readily available in a ‘business as usual’ context.
“For organisations like Inland Revenue that offer an essential service to the New Zealand government, continuity of operations following a natural disaster is critical. Having flexible work practices and policies in place will more easily ensure business continuity in a time of crisis.”
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