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Christchurch quake indicates need for workplace flexibility

Christchurch quake indicates need for workplace flexibility

Although it is good practice for organisations to have a business continuity plan, workplace flexibility is what really counts in a disaster, Victoria University of Wellington research has found.

Dr Noelle Donnelly and Dr Sarah Proctor-Thomson, researchers at the Centre for Labour, Employment and Work at Victoria’s School of Management, were commissioned by the Public Service Association (PSA) and Inland Revenue to research the experiences of employees who worked from home following the February 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch.

This is the first study of its kind examining the experiences of flexible work arrangements in a post-disaster environment.

At the time of the February earthquake, Inland Revenue had just one central office of over 800 staff members in the centre of town.

“When the earthquake hit Christchurch at 12.51pm on Tuesday 22 February 2011, Inland Revenue immediately lost access to its main workplace in the CBD,” says Dr Donnelly. “In response, available senior managers met and began the work of assigning new roles and tasks to staff. One of their immediate challenges was making contact with their people to ensure that they were all safe.”

Some jobs were relocated to Wellington and Auckland, and many staff were assigned to different teams in various locations, but one of the key ways of getting everyone back to work was teleworking.

“Some of the best laid emergency plans simply won’t work in a real life situation, so a flexible workforce is essential,” says Dr Proctor-Thomson.

“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.”

The researchers found that 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,” says Dr Donnelly. “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.”

Trust was a critical part of managing these teleworkers. “For some team leaders they had to find new ways of managing their teams not based on visibility or presence in a central workplace.”

Not surprisingly, isolation and reduced information sharing were issues encountered by many of the staff the researchers talked to. Dr Donnelly says 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 said they would prefer a hybrid arrangement that involved a certain amount of face-to-face time in the office.

The researchers 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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