‘Was your digital strategy brought in by your CEO, CIO or COVID-19?’ is a quip currently circulating on social media. Prior to the pandemic, around 30 per cent of Australians worked from home at least part-time, with these numbers steadily increasing year on year (1).
The pandemic has dramatically accelerated that shift, with much of Australia’s workforce teleworking during the lockdowns.
The permanency of this switch is now being scrutinised as organisations plan their post-pandemic operations and as active COVID cases across Australia continue to decline and businesses reopen their brick and mortar offices.
Higher degrees of teleworking are here to stay
CSIRO staff recently attended a nation-wide web-conference exploring how employees will be supported as they continue to work from home.
The move was a result of a CSIRO-wide staff survey that found most staff who worked from home during the pandemic preferred to continue, at the very least on a part-time basis.
Many CSIRO employees reported that working remotely improved their productivity, reduced the time and costs associated with commuting, and encouraged a more sustainable work-life balance.
A recent study by Boston Consulting Group found this outlook was typical of white-collar workers across Australia.
Their online survey of roughly 1,000 workers found that 85 per cent of those who can work from home want to continue doing so in a reduced capacity, splitting their time between the office and home2.
Australian government workers surveyed by the Commonwealth Public Sector Union (CPSU) also appreciated the increased autonomy and freedom of working from home and wanted to continue to work more from home after the pandemic.
One of the barriers to increased telework – managerial resistance – has been weakened by the forced work-from-home experiment created by the pandemic.
The CPSU survey also found that government managers who had been resistant to allowing remote working pre-pandemic had become more supportive,3 a finding echoed by a Swinburne University survey that found 62 per cent of managers expected team members to work remotely more often post-pandemic4.
Another indication that the shift is likely to become permanent can be found in Google’s Community Mobility Reports, with data indicating a lack of white-collar workers returning to workplaces despite lockdowns easing throughout the nation.
In fact, people travelling to workplaces remained noticeably low, with an 8 per cent drop on pre-COVID levels across Australia (excluding Victoria which is still in lock down). The only jurisdiction not to record any change in workplace attendance was the ACT.
Longer-term, we’re likely to see the increased uptake of telework impacting the way we live and function in numerous ways.
An early indicator is the influence on the property market, with office vacancy rates in central business districts on the rise while the price of units in high-density inner-city areas is dipping. In contrast, the price of property in lifestyle locations away from dense metropolitan areas is on the rise, a trend coined ‘zoom-boom towns’5,6.
Telework may also influence home design, with real estate agents suggesting home offices are the new ‘must have’ in residential real estate 7. This shift to lifestyle regions may also increase as work from home-policies become more permanent, and employees start to make investment decisions based on the assured freedoms linked to their salaries.
How the modern Australian workforce will adapt
This monumental shift to working remotely will significantly increase our reliance on digital networks and broadband infrastructure, with a corresponding rise for cybersafe systems and secure platforms and networks.
Business models that incorporate digital channels will increasing apply to almost all industries, with this increase in digitalisation possibly spelling a reduction in the amount of real-life face-to-face time provided by education institutions, health and government services.
These institutions are likely to increasingly switch to digital interactions (including digital face-to-face modes via videoconferencing), a move that may allow people to spend more time in person with their family and community instead. As the lockdowns have shown, going digital doesn’t have to mean less personal one-on-one communication.
The question of productivity
The impact of higher levels of telework on labour productivity and innovation is still not clear.
Although it has been reported by workers that their productivity has increased and there has been speculation that reductions in commutes will create a sudden boom in productivity8, it will be a while until we see the impacts of higher degrees of telework in the productivity data.
Traditionally, labour productivity has been higher per worker in CBD areas 9, and Australia’s economy has been dominated by businesses in cities. Major cities on the east coast contributed to over 50 per cent of Australia’s GDP in 2018-1910.
Innovation is thought to be enhanced through incidental personal interactions, local business opportunities and geographic ‘knowledge spill overs', a theory supporting the concept of central business districts and industrial clusters10.
How much of this can be transferred to digital networks is unclear. One possibility is that innovation will become more closely associated with collaborative work, rather than geographic proximity.
While the longer-term impacts are still uncertain, the significant and accelerated shift to digital work modes has been one of the more dramatic consequences of the pandemic, and one that will likely have lasting impacts into the future.
The move to digital work will come with adjustments in all industries, and just like every other global shock, will undoubtedly seed and boost new sectors.
At its best, the shift to telework may increase our locational freedoms, work autonomy, cut organisational costs and create new ways for us to interact with colleagues while increasing our face-to-face time with those most important to us.