Katherine McConnell wanted to make sure that she and her employees didn’t fall back into their old habits when they returned to the office in Sydney, Australia—where the coronavirus situation has stabilized—after several months of working from home. So McConnell, the founder and CEO of financial technology company Brighte implemented a flexible working policy, allowing employees to continue to work from home even after the office reopened. Still, she found herself rushing between meetings and spending increasingly long hours in the office—and missing things like eating lunch with her family. So she blocked out one day a week in her calendar to work from home, hoping that would also encourage her employees to follow suit. As a leader, if I don’t show that I can work from home and I will do this, I think that people may copy me and quickly return to how they used to do things,” she says, “and I don’t want that to happen, and I know it doesn’t have to.”
Many U.S. companies have pushed office return dates to September and beyond. But workers in Australia—where there have been fewer than 30,000 cases of COVID-19 and under 1,000 deaths—are already returning to their offices. That includes employees at Brighte, which specializes in helping homeowners fund home improvement projects, including sustainable energy solutions like solar panels and battery storage.
In a video interview with TIME, McConnell shared how Brighte manages flexible work—and what lessons it can offer to companies elsewhere as they navigate their own return to office life. That might be helpful in a world where more than 70% of people want to split their post-pandemic time between in-person and remote working, according to a PwC survey of 32,500 participants from 19 countries released in March. Bright, which has about 115 employees in Australia’s largest city of Sydney (as well as a smaller office in the Philippines), went into the work-from-home mode in March 2020 as COVID-19 cases spiked. But the country of 26 million people kept the virus in check with strict lockdowns and stringent border controls. As of April 20, there are just three active locally-transmitted COVID-19 cases in the state of New South Wales, where Sydney is located.
Bright employees started returning to the office by June of last year, although the office looked and felt different—desks were spaced farther apart, meeting rooms had lower maximum capacities, and hand sanitizer dispensers were installed throughout. (Some of these precautions have since been eased given the loosening of government restrictions and the low number of COVID-19 cases).
Some employees of the company—which in 2019 was ranked the fourth-fastest growing company in the Asia-Pacific region in the Deloitte Technology Fast 500—were nervous to go back to the office. So company leaders let them know that there’s flexibility to meet their needs. We have accommodation and an acceptance that people will work from home one to two days a week,” says McConnell. But some people work remotely more than others, and she’s empowered her management team to make decisions that work for their direct reports. “It’s an individual basis, it’s a team-by-team basis, it’s high levels of communication, and it’s a delegation of authority to team leaders and team managers to work with their team to understand their individual requirements.