Working from home may continue after virus

Katina Curtis, AAP Senior Political Writer
(Australian Associated Press)

 

Many Australians and their bosses are discovering just how much work can be done outside of an office as social distancing rules are in effect to stop the coronavirus.

Researchers say workplaces are unlikely to look the same after this major upheaval, even if the economy does “snap back” in the way politicians want it to.

But there are warnings that working from home is not all positive.

The Centre for Future Work, part of progressive think tank The Australia Institute, estimates about three in 10 Australian workers – or four million people – can do their jobs from home.

These are largely people in office settings who work on computers or by telephone.

Centre director Jim Stanford says there are probably half this number working at home right now, in the midst of the crisis.

“It is likely that much of the increase in at-home work will become permanent, even after the immediate health emergency passes, so it is crucial policymakers pay top-priority attention to ensuring the safety and fairness of work from home arrangements,” he said on Monday.

“Normal employment patterns won’t suddenly reappear, even once the health emergency has passed and people are able to go back to their workplaces.”

In a paper he has written with the centre’s senior economist Alison Pennington, he says there will likely be a mix of people who want to return to their offices and those who want to continue to work from home.

They note the right to request flexible work arrangements is already enshrined in law, but there might need to be a “mirror-image entitlement” – the right to work at a formal employer-provided workplace – added to this.

And they caution that at-home working could turn out to be “baptism by fire” with workers compelled to prove themselves ever more enthusiastically to employers and bosses tempted to use cyber-surveillance to make sure their employees are working.

Demographer Lisa Denny, from the University of Tasmania, says everyone is experiencing the current situation differently and workplaces will respond likewise.

“The test, I guess, will be on productivity and whether businesses will continue to support a new way of working if the productivity levels don’t change or if they increase or if they decrease,” she told AAP.

She would like to see society move away from “presenteeism” or logging hours at a desk for the sake of it.

But there are also benefits in workers coming together in a single workplace.

“There’s much reward to be experienced from working in a team in a face-to-face environment and having those, what you’d call, tea room encounters that you don’t get in scheduled meeting environments, that open up the way of thinking and different perspectives,” Dr Denny said.

She also hopes the huge economic shake-up prompted by the virus will highlight how much Australia relies on casual workers, with a quarter of the workforce in insecure jobs without benefits like sick leave.

“Because the economy has been plugging along and most people have been doing okay, even though inequality has been widening, it hasn’t been until we get this massive crisis and that immediate effect that the reality of the way our workforce is actually structured has come to light,” she said.

“Hopefully, it will have the shock that is needed to reset the way our workforce is structured and supported and how people are employed.”

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