Date posted: 22/03/2022 8 min read

Hybrid working, mental health and other office essentials

Many of us set new routines working from home during COVID. How do we keep our lives in balance as we return to the office?

In Brief

  • Post lockdown, hybrid working has become the norm for many organisations.
  • Employers need to focus on mental health support when bringing workers back into the office.
  • Hybrid working should allow a better work-life balance.

Like many workers in Australia, I have been toiling from home for the past eight months, and on and off in the office for the 12 months before that. As I write this, we’re a week away from a formal return to the office – but this time working #hybridstyle.

How do I feel? Strangely nervous about having to wear shoes while I work. (It seems so formal.) I’m horrified by the thought of a three-hour-plus daily commute. (Despite Google Maps telling me it’s a 24km distance, NSW Transport seems to have other ideas.)

And as a single parent with no out-of-school care arrangements currently available, I feel overwhelmed about what to do with my children before and after school.

Yet, at the same time, I’m thrilled at the concept of time spent outside my suburb and invigorated by the prospect of connecting and sharing ideas with my colleagues in a creative space.

I am also a little too excited at the thought of walking across the road to buy a Vietnamese spring-roll salad. Salada crackers, you have been good to me, but I’m ready for more.

That may seem a strange and, admittedly, very personal mix of anticipation and fear, but many of us are experiencing a similar range of emotions as we return to the office.

Positive workplace experiences

In February, I was emailing Kayla Russell CA, an accountant based in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, who has been working in public practice for more than eight years. Russell is a strong advocate for work-life balance (also referred to as work-life harmony or work-life integration).

Recognised as Mentor of the Year at the 2021 Australian Accounting Awards, she is passionate about empowering her colleagues and clients to achieve greatness in their professional careers, while enjoying a life outside work.

Like a lot of us, she’s had to adjust her boundaries during the COVID-19 experience.

“Before COVID, my work-life balance was a little more consistent,” she writes. “I had much clearer boundaries personally of what additional hours I would work in a week. It was certainly much easier to stick to these ideals as there were, for me personally, fewer outside pressures.

“Since COVID, it has been difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance,” she continues. “This is mainly due to the mountain of extra work placed upon us with the introduction of government grants and subsidies.

“The boundaries were being pushed on a daily basis just trying to help each and every one of our clients through the difficult times. It was a constant struggle to bring the work-life balance back to centre.”

Russell is ready to embrace hybrid working and is advocating for positive change in how we all work. She is optimistic and hopeful that the hybrid way of working will be the critical piece in returning our work-life balance ‘back to centre’.

She is certainly not alone. PwC research found that 60% of Australian employees prefer a hybrid model of work (a mix of face-to-face and remote working).

I think most of us can recognise the preference for hybrid working is largely about maintaining a better work-life balance. But in the first half of 2022, as we figure out what our individual versions of hybrid work look like, we will be presented with some challenges.

I would suggest three practical ideas during this ‘test and learn’ period to reduce angst and anxiety among both employers and employees.

1. Trust is key

Trust should cover both cognitive and emotional trust. Cognitive trust means trusting that the people who work for and with you are reliable and competent in their roles.

Emotional trust means knowing that your manager, your reports and your colleagues have an understanding of your unique needs (think me and my childcare challenges rather than me and my footwear challenges) and care for you based on this understanding.

2. Provide the tools

Many larger workplaces have excellent employee assistance programs (EAPs) in place. I fully support these in raising awareness of mental health and as a powerful self assessment tool.

However, these place the onus on the employee to assess and manage their mental health. They don’t always take into account organisational culture and structures that may be negatively affecting employees.

I support a more active approach that educates and empowers leaders and managers to better support their teams.

An active approach may be to include training your team in Mental Health First Aid – enabling staff to be more mindful, aware and enabled to listen and converse with each other when they recognise they may be struggling.

The permanent hybrid model of work is one of significant change and I’d recommend any business, large or small, look at how they might use the available tools and training to more acutely assess the needs of their teams.

3. Listen

When it comes to mental health, your mantra really needs to be ‘when in doubt, just listen’.

On the morning I wrote this column, Australia Post announced it was appointing its first chief mental health officer, noting that the company’s scale gave it a “moral obligation to lead in this important area”. I felt really buoyed by this news.

That same day, I spoke with Aaron McEwan, vice-president of the Gartner HR Research practice, asking for his thoughts. “I’m not surprised,” he told me. “We are heading into an endemic of mental health challenges. I think it’s a great thing and we need more of it.”

As we all adjust to new ways of working, let’s keep this in mind. We all have a moral obligation to each other when it comes to mental health – no matter the size of the business. 


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