Katie Procter recently completed her first year of work at Westpac NZ’s Auckland headquarters – although lockdowns mean she’s done most of that work virtually. Here, she talks about what that experience has taught her about how she’d like to structure her working week.

JEREMY HANSEN Firstly, Katie, would you mind telling me about what your role is at Westpac?

KATIE PROCTER Sure thing. I’m an Experience Hub Graduate at Westpac New Zealand, and I’ve been working at Westpac for just over a year now. I studied at the University of Canterbury, completing a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and then I completed my Masters in Industrial and Organisational Psychology – which is usually referred to as workplace psychology.

JH What has your experience of that first year been like, given much of it has been conducted virtually?

KP I’ve been working from home for about seven months now. I work from my bedroom, so if you can imagine a bed shoved against a wall, a small desk on the other side of the wall, and a small gap between the two, that’s my room. This working environment has certainly had its challenges, and I’m very thankful for all the support that has been wrapped around me, as people are very aware that it isn’t an ideal working situation. I focus on creating a positive mindset and what I’m grateful for, like my job, and my amazing colleagues.

JH With this experience in mind, what value do you place on in-person connection and the way that builds a sense of belonging to an organisation? And related to that, what thoughts do you have about the ability to build that using technology?

KP Everyone has preferences for how they interact and deepen connections. Personally, I find that in-person interactions provide an opportunity for much deeper connection than technology. I believe that about 90 percent of communication is non-verbal, so your tone and body language can hold more weighting in your communication than what you are actually saying. From a psychology perspective, take that logic, and apply it to social situations where everyone has cameras off and are on mute. What does this mean for how we are communicating to our colleagues? Is the true impact of what we are trying to communicate actually coming through?

I think human beings are naturally very social and adaptable. In saying that, I do believe that social features or social etiquette on platforms like Teams and Zoom are still in their infancy. And this goes much further than making sure you’re not on mute, but it’s the non-verbals like ‘mm’ to agree that is usually missing quite a bit. Everyone has probably experienced that sensation where you put an idea out there in a virtual meeting and once you finish talking, you have the longest few seconds of your life while you wait for someone to speak to either agree or disagree, and the reason that that can be so stressful, is that if everyone is camera off and muted, there is no way to gauge how people are reacting while you are speaking. Whereas, if you were in person, you might see a few people nodding along while you are talking – which indicates support or at least understanding for your perspective.

This hybrid model of in-person and virtual interactions is our future of work, but right now I do certainly place more value on in-person interactions. I still think of the office as the beating heart of an organisation. It represents the opportunity for deepening relationships, spontaneity, and innovation.

JH How do you widen your network when it is confined to these quite limited rooms that are set up virtually?

KP Great question. It’s certainly been challenging to widen my network while working remotely. I’m very lucky that my workplace has quite a few groups that I get involved with. For example, we have quite a few employee action groups that anyone at my workplace can join. Those sorts of events and groups are opportunities to meet and collaborate on bigger initiatives than yourself. They take you outside your day job to something you might be extremely passionate about, while expanding your network to people you may not have otherwise met.

JH Now that we’re entering a phase where returning to the office becomes possible, what do you think is going to be the optimal arrangement for you?

KP Ideally about 50/50, but it would depend on my team. I would love to be able to have flexibility and a mixture of working remotely and working from the office. This time where I’ve been able to work from home, has definitely had many benefits. For one, I’ve never been more well-rested in my life, but also my life is very organised nowadays. I’ve been able to do more personal admin in my lunch break, like going to the supermarket or making sure my laundry gets done, rather than cramming these tasks into the weekend, so this has been hugely beneficial to me. I’m not fixed on certain days that I would want to be in the office; rather, I’m more set on who I would be able to interact with. That’s an important part for me, to go in on days where my whole team is there, so I could really collaborate and be around them. I find for more collaborative work, it helps to be in a creative environment and have others physically with you. An organisation at the end of the day is just a group of people working towards something bigger than themselves or a collective goal, and what better way to do that than when we’re all together?

JH What is an office mostly for?

KP It is for community. As lockdowns last year showed across the world, working remotely achieves the same if not increased levels of productivity. We have broken that barrier, and are in the process of de-bunking the myth that work from home is less effective than being in an office. But can you develop the same strong working relationships, and the same sense of who the organisation is? How do businesses build an organisational strategy about who they are, when we’ve never been more remote and distant from each other? When you’re able to have certain days where everyone comes together, I think it usually shows a better reflection of who an organisation is and what they stand for. An organisation’s culture is not just ping-pong tables and staff benefits, it’s largely to do with how leaders and colleagues interact with each other, and there is no better way to show who the organisation is than when we are all together in an office. It’s going out of your way to show someone where the meeting room is, the conversations you have while making a tea, or the ‘Good Mornings’ when you enter the building in the morning. These are micro- interactions that only take a few seconds, but these micro-interactions compound over time and can become a significant influence towards someone’s attitudes towards their workplace.

JH Your generation is really well-informed about the importance of mental health. Does working virtually foster good mental health, or are there dangers?

KP  Great question. Technology is absolutely a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it can be such a fantastic tool for mental health. You can Google wellbeing tips, find resources and contacts online, and connect to others without being confined by location. But on the flip side, technology enables us to be so much more isolated. I’ve definitely had days where I’ve only spoken to one or two people via Teams that entire day, and my flatmates come home at five o’clock and I’m like a puppy at the door, just eager just to talk to someone, anyone, you know? There are so many young people doing exactly what I am doing where working virtually means having to work from our bedrooms. I’m very concerned about the endless hours in our bedrooms as it can be hard to detach from work as there is no barrier between your place of work, and your place of rest and rejuvenation.

JH There’s been talk in the US of the ‘Great Resignation’, and of the balance of power shifting strongly to employees. What’s your take on that?

KP  I think the power has certainly shifted. This is exciting because the science is adamant that this is how you get the very best out of people in your organisation: You need to give them reasonable hours, you need to trust them to complete their work, you need to give them meaning in their work and you need to be working with them to create a really positive employee experience. So, I think it’s great that we have this worldwide movement to enter this employee-centric era where hopefully the toxic side of hustle culture is fading away, and instead a healthier and more sustainable mindset towards work is emerging. My general logic in life is if you’re doing the right thing for your people, it’s usually the right decision.

JH What role, if any, does physical place play in this – whether that be offices or the places they’re located in?

KP  I love Britomart, it’s really ideal for me, and so much fun. Britomart represents the social hub of Auckland, and is such an amazing place to gather with friends, family, and groups. While I love working in Britomart, I consider the physical location a ‘nice to have’ but I don’t think it’s critical to my decision-making about whether I would accept a job or not. At this stage in my career, I care much more about who my leader would be, professional growth opportunities, and the role itself. That’s where my priority is, not the physical location.

Click here to read the other interviews in our City Futures series.