The shift to working from home can outlast COVID-19


Crises often accelerate change in workplaces: during World War I, women for the first time filled factory jobs vacated by men.

The next few months could decide whether the COVID-19 pandemic has a similar long-term impact on the experience of working in an office. For the past eight months, office life has been transformed as – in the interest of social distancing – millions were told to work from home.

The shift to remote working is surprisingly widespread. The percentage of people who work from home has of course climbed in tech-savvy sectors such as IT and finance. But it has risen significantly in some old economy sectors too. In construction, for instance, the share of work-from-home workers jumped from 15 per cent pre-COVID to 34 per cent in September, according to Fair Work Australia.

Yet from Monday, the NSW Public Health Order requiring employers to allow all workers to work remotely lapsed.

Bosses will now have the option of ordering staff back to the office.


At one level, this is good news because it can only happen thanks to Australia’s success in all but eliminating the virus. It is now safe to go back to the office.

By contrast in the US, big companies such as Amazon and Apple tried to get workers back into the office after the first round of lockdowns but then extended their work-from-home rules as the pandemic continued to spread.

Yet the return to the pre-COVID status quo also poses problems because, as the Herald has reported, some Australian employers are more enthusiastic about returning to the old work arrangements than their workers, who have enjoyed the flexibility and the time saved from the daily commute.

A Boston Consulting Group study of large companies found that employers believe only 40 per cent of workers should be allowed to not come into the office, while a separate BCG study earlier this year found that 63 per cent of employees want a hybrid model where they work from home part of the time. Some employers seem to think that having workers under one roof increases productivity and helps build a sense of teamwork. Older workers can mentor younger colleagues and the chat around the water-cooler can generate great ideas. Perhaps some also believe it is important to clock the hours of facetime their employees put in.

Yet employers should reflect on the possibility that things have changed permanently and try to show some flexibility for their employees.

Many workplaces that were hesitant to allow work from home a year ago have now experienced it first hand. They have made the investment in new technology and management techniques and know-how to make it work.

While it might be a bit harder to manage some staff, there are benefits. Companies can save significantly on the cost of office space and there is evidence that allowing working from home cuts the number of sick days.

Some adaptation might be necessary. For instance, it might be necessary to order staff into the workplace on specific days for specific reasons, such as brainstorming sessions or training.

The long-term impact is still unclear. Some office workers who have suffered through excruciating meetings on Zoom – interrupted by bad home Wi-Fi and children – will rush back to the office.

Many workers may drift back more slowly. Yahoo abandoned a shift to working from home in 2013 because it discovered some workers got lonely and wanted to hang out with their colleagues.

Rather than clinging to the old stereotypes, however, smart employers should listen to the employees who want some of the COVID-19 changes to be permanent.

Note from the Editor

Herald editor, Lisa Davies, writes an exclusive newsletter for subscribers on the week’s most important stories and issues. Sign up here to receive it every Friday.

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