The global consulting firm's leader of People and Culture for Oceania says having leaders in the office is key to the rest of the team turning up. 

JEREMY HANSEN Kate, your responsibilities span People, Place and Culture for EY offices throughout Oceania. What have you been observing as people have moved to more flexible work practices as a result of Covid? 

KATE HILLMAN Our people are moving back to the office in increasing numbers, but I would say that the cities that were most impacted by Covid are having the slowest return. They're taking a little bit longer to get their confidence back, I think. But, for example, in Brisbane last week I was having trouble finding meeting rooms and desks because we had so many people back in the office, which is a really fantastic thing to see.

JEREMY HANSEN Does this mean you think things will return to some sort of pre-Covid normal, or is there a permanent shift going on here too?

KATE HILLMAN I'd hate to think that we lose flexibility and move back to doing things the way we used to. For me, it's not only about whether or not people are in the office, it's about how people are using that office space. We use a bit of a mantra at EY: At work to collaborate, remote to concentrate. We don't see the point in someone picking up their bag at 6am and jumping on the train and coming into the office and fighting the crowds and then sitting there to bang out a report on their own, right? We really want to see people use the time they have in the office to work collaboratively with clients, or perhaps for those important one-on-one conversations that they need to have with leaders. But we’re really comfortable that our people are doing that deep concentration work from somewhere where they get the most value and don't lose time commuting if they're not really going to be engaging with people when they're in the office.

JEREMY HANSEN Have you had to work to make the offices more desirable for people? Or is that not so much of a factor?

KATE HILLMAN I think that's a really important factor. I think people have gotten used to their creature comforts at home and they've really enjoyed that. What's the purpose of coming into the office now? I'd say what's really important is leadership presence. One of the things our people love is proximity to leadership. So when my leaders say, "Well, my team aren't coming in," my question always is, "Are you making yourself available to meet with them? Because our people really like to be around their leaders". 

We’re also trying to make our offices have more context for the type of work you're doing instead of that standard set of desks. The one-size-fits-all approach is pretty much out the window now. We are now offering things like you can order a sandwich and a coffee to your desk. I think people are finding that a really valuable service. We’re thinking about how you physically set things up, but that thinking is very much around what's the value of coming to work. 

JEREMY HANSEN Is it still too early to be conducting major redesigns of offices? And if you were to do that at this stage, what would those offices look like?

KATE HILLMAN We were already looking at a proof of concept for one of our offices that was coming up for lease, and we thought very differently about that space than we would typically. But I think you want to be very careful. It's not so much about giving up the real estate footprint, but how you use that. We’re looking at more flexible spaces: it's a workshop space today, it might be a reading area tomorrow. So how can you make a space flex to the uses that you want to give it?

JOANNE OGG (EY NZ MANAGING PARTNER) We have just committed to re-signing our lease at Britomart, and we are just engaging an architect now to really work out how we might reconfigure space and that whole concept of flexibility, non-standard desks, hybrid. We will have some people in the office and some people on a screen, for example – all of that stuff's come into the brief that we're pulling together.

KATE HILLMAN I think the thing that I would say to people is, don’t rush into reducing the overall amount of space. Some people are trying to maximise the savings on real estate, but even if you're having fewer people in the office, you might not want to be reducing the footprint. We’re looking at very different uses of space than we typically have had.

JEREMY HANSEN I’ve talked to companies recently that already have or are developing amenities such as yoga studios, meditation rooms, little pods to do Zoom calls in. How far do you go in providing these sorts of facilities, or what other kind of amenities are you contemplating for your own teams?

KATE HILLMAN We already provide a prayer room, an infant room and space for people to meditate in many of our offices. I think for us, biophilic design – getting the health settings right in the building – is going to be really important. Things like windows that open are going to be really important. It's very important to have wellbeing settings, but we want them to be genuine wellbeing settings. For us, thinking about wellbeing is more about work design, like things that allow people to navigate and find you. If you think about our Sydney office with 3000 staff, how do you navigate that, how do you find your colleagues? We’re looking at technologies that allow you to find a spare desk and book it, to find your working group, to navigate the rooms that you need. 

When it comes to amenities, there are plenty of gyms and things around us. We're very happy for our people to use those, and we also see that as being part of our business community in our cities. So we’d be less likely to provide those specific spaces, but offer connection to those services instead. 

JEREMY HANSEN Joanne, when we spoke a few months ago you expressed some concern about the ability to track staff wellbeing if people are working remotely. Are you feeling more confident about your ability to do that now that flexible modes of working are settling in more?

JOANNE OGG That was in the context of Auckland having been shut down from August to December, and us not physically being able to see people and really get a sense around wellbeing. Now we are getting good numbers back in the office, some of the highest proportions across Oceania at an office level for EY. And so what I would say is that the more people that are in, the more leadership that are in, the more comfortable we feel about having a finger on the pulse at a very individual and personal level around where our teams are at. And that is purely through being able to see them, being able to engage with them, being able to see their body language. And for them feeling they can share more with us without having to book a Teams meeting. 

KATE HILLMAN During COVID we rolled out a lot of leadership training and development to really help our partners and our leaders across the business, because when you can't be with people all the time, your ability to empathise is so much more important. We use a lot of Michael Bunting's work [Bunting is the founder of Australia’s The Mindful Leader collective] to really empower our leaders to hone in on how to connect with people, how to check in on people's wellbeing. We also appointed a chief mental health officer, Jono Nicholas, who’s a psychologist who supports us in our planning and thinking and the way that we go about building connection with our people when we have to do it remotely. But there's no doubt in my mind that coming back into the office and engaging in person is really important for everybody's wellbeing. And it does give us better lead indicators on how people are doing.

JEREMY HANSEN One of the interesting things to me about this shift in workplace practice is that it's brought to the surface aspects of office life that people don't like. Some US surveys have found women and people of color were the happiest not to have to come to the office because they reported that they faced so many microaggressions there, for example. So I wondered if this shift in workplace organisation also encouraged you to take a different look at workplace practices in general.

KATE HILLMAN That’s really important to us. Culture lies at the heart of everything we do. Our business is in our people's brains, so if we’re not providing a psychologically safe work environment for people, they're not going to perform in the way we need them to. So, we are very clear on our workplace behaviour requirements, and we've certainly tried to seize learnings that we've had through Covid around people's wellbeing and safety and what they appreciate. We roll out things like bystander, or what we'd like to call up-stander training, that help our people to identify things that aren't okay and to respond to them. We have a programme that I lead called Work Reimagined, and we provide lots of forums to crowdsource our people's ideas about what they like and don't like about work, and what we need to improve and change. They can suggest anything to us from, "We want to move to a four-day working week," to small things like junior staff having to request permission to use a color printer – we just did away with that because we have trust with our people. So we’re looking for ideas from our people that really draw the benefits of the trust that we've established over the last few years, and particularly through Covid, that lifts burden on them and stops making everybody feel like we're controlling them. 

I think we've got to be really intentional about building culture when we've got people working remotely. Young mums, for example, are often carrying the biggest burden in terms of workload and can have long commutes, so there's a huge value in remote working to making sure our diversity is maintained by making it easier for those cohorts. But then we have to be really mindful that they're not on the negative end of that because they don't have proximity to leadership, and therefore they're not on the radar and therefore their careers don't grow at the same rate. We just have to be incredibly intentional about how we support people who work a lot remotely, particularly if they're from the minority groups within the business already.

JEREMY HANSEN What are you hearing from your clients who are grappling with these issues?

KATE HILLMAN The paucity of available workers is a real challenge for people, but I often hear, "Oh well, as soon as this kind of moment passes, it'll all go back to normal." My message is that would be really sad, because I think organisations that develop psychologically safe, highly trusting environments are going to have the pick of the best people. So I think it's in everyone's best interests to adapt. It's time that we really rethought work and redesigned work for workers. Work should be interesting, engaging and hard yards sometimes, but it shouldn't be miserable and it shouldn't be unhappy. I also acknowledge that's much more easily said for an organisation like mine, where our people are digitally savvy, where we have all the technology for them to work remotely. But whether it's remote working or not, listening to your people and asking them what helps them to do their jobs more easily and trying to respond to that, you can't go wrong.

JEREMY HANSEN EY, of course, is a client-facing organisation. And often those clients are coming to EY with jobs that have deadlines that are imposed from outside. How do you help your staff navigate those crunch points, which are often imposed on them externally?

KATE HILLMAN It's not just about what we want, it's about what our customers need because our customers create the work that allow us to provide the great career opportunities to our people. So a lot of what we've rolled out to help everybody engage in this hybrid world are discussion guides. How do you have a conversation with your client and your team about where you need to be and when? Because it's not all about self. We really encourage our people to think through where they need to be to get the best outcome for the client, which automatically gets the best outcome from the business, which allows us to give the best outcome to our people.

So it really is developing the skills to have the conversations rather than to have set answers. I think the big challenge is, over the last three years we've all been told what to do, and really beautifully, heroically, we pretty much did that. And that was a wonderful sign of our citizenship and care for one another, but we now have to encourage people to take back self-agency. That's kind of tough when everyone's exhausted. So we’re trying to build in the autonomy for people to make good decisions, and set good guidelines for them to work within. But at the same time, handing back as much decision-making as we can and getting people back to a sense of confidence about running their lives, which I think we all lost a bit of in the last three years.

JEREMY HANSEN Just to sum up, it sounds like you’re seeing there's more excitement than there is downside. 

KATE HILLMAN Absolutely. I think when all the cards are in the air, that's when you've got the chance to move things around. I think that for us, overwhelmingly our people have leant into flexibility and we've been able to demonstrate that flexibility hasn't negatively impacted our business whatsoever. But I think we also recognize that coming together is really important to building culture. That's why we provide guidance. We would say two to three days a week in the office is the optimum for developing your career, as much as it is for delivering the business that we need, but our people have been really respectful. 

And I think what was really interesting too was the mental health conversation became a much more public conversation as everyone realised that their mental health was being challenged by the circumstances. And I think that has been quite positive because the stigma of conversations around mental health has been significantly reduced. So I think there's some really positive things that have come out of some pretty dark times for people.