Of all the lockdown restrictions frustrating Australians, working from home is not one of them. In fact, survey upon survey show a vast majority of Australians now want remote working to be a regular feature of their lives.
Many workers are enjoying the flexibility to structure their days as they see fit, from replacing morning commutes with yoga to catching a few rays of sunshine on mid-afternoon walks. And despite the Covid-19 imposed adjustment, workers have remained as productive as ever.
The good news is the benefits aren’t going unnoticed. Business leaders are wasting little time making the necessary changes to accommodate remote working.
“Prior to Covid-19 around 10% of our staff had flexible work arrangements, long term I expect that will be more like 40%,” says Allyson Carlile, head of people and culture at insurance firm Metlife Australia.
The rigid corporate lifestyle that compelled workers to long office hours, often at the expense of family and personal wellbeing, is undergoing a pandemic-inspired revolution.
“Historically, there was a view that remote working wasn’t appropriate for law firms and the sector was somewhat fixated on presenteeism and ‘being seen’. The pandemic has put paid to that,” says Andrew Pike, Australian executive partner at Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF). The law firm found its employees largely enjoyed the work-from-home benefits, which improved their outputs.
“Many have found working from home makes it easier for them to complete tasks that require a great deal of attention or peace and quiet,” Pike says. Working from home also means more time with loved ones. Confinement-induced relationship tensions aside, 66% of Australian respondents to a Salesforce survey say remote working has brought them closer to their families.
The new arrangement certainly had its sceptics, particularly at the beginning of the crisis. The insistence on “presenteeism” is a long tradition stemming from management fears of worker complacency. But with company heads now seeing the tangible benefits of remote working on productivity and employee wellbeing, those attitudes are quickly shifting.
“Sending everyone home meant that leaders were forced to trust their people and our people showed that not only could they be trusted but, in a crisis, they would go above and beyond,” Carlile says.
‘A lot of people don’t clock off’
But the sudden enthusiasm for remote working over recent months can evaporate just as quickly without guardrails. “Working from home can be quite liberating, but it can also end up being a bit of a prison,” says Sara Charlesworth, director of RMIT’s Centre for People, Organisation and Work.
Working from home has the potential to affect the hours people work, and their decision to work at all. Already seen as an alternative to sick days before Covid-19, some research suggests many workers do not feel comfortable taking sick leave while working remotely.
Charlesworth also highlights the risk of overworking, or “intensification” and “extensification” as she puts it. Workers are increasing their output to compensate for the lack of visibility offered by an office, and to reassure their colleagues and bosses they’re online and working. This is bleeding working hours into home life, Charlesworth warns. “A lot of people don’t clock off at 6pm, they continue working.”
It’s a pattern observed at Metlife Australia, prompting company heads to nudge employees to disconnect from work. “We encouraged people to set up proper workstations in a dedicated space where possible so they can ‘leave’ work at the end of the working day, and set boundaries, such as switch off the computer,” Carlile says, adding that employees eventually got used to the arrangement.
The dangerous flipside
Companies are looking to remote working not simply for the benefits to productivity and work culture but to help cut costs amid the economic turmoil caused by Covid-19. It was certainly the motivation that led to energy giant Worley slashing 1,900 jobs and permanently moving some operations to remote working. It also prompted other Australian brands such as Westpac and Optus to announce similar shifts to remote working.
As revenue-strapped companies sift through the tasks that can be done remotely, they are also designating those that can be done without a human hand altogether.
The dangerous flipside was made most transparent by the recent Woolworths decision to cut 1,350 warehouse jobs. In explaining the job cuts, the retail heavyweight said it was building automated distribution centres that could do the work of humans, making warehouse employees effectively redundant.
Remote working is one way to cut costs, automation is the other – and they come hand-in-hand as companies plan for survival. While some workers enjoy the luxury of remote life, others could be left without a job.
“More companies are exploring automation technologies, and more companies are rapidly digitising their businesses,” says André Dua, senior partner at McKinsey. As seen at Metlife Australia and HSF, companies have discovered during lockdown that a bulk of their operations can be done remotely. The alarming addendum to this point, Dua says, is that companies are also realising that “their work can be performed with anywhere from 5%-25% fewer employees”.
And the acceleration towards automation isn’t just affecting warehouse workers. “Office jobs will not be exempt from automation,” Dua warns. In fact, McKinsey identified several office jobs – such as secretaries, administrative assistants, bookkeepers and office clerks – at high-risk from automation even prior to Covid-19. The pandemic is only accelerating these trends.
Dropping the ball on training
Inclusive training by way of “wide-ranging, large-scale programs” is needed, Dua says, “to address the challenges of worker displacement that Covid-19 is accelerating”.
If companies are adopting a digital-first, remote-working approach to their operations, then training efforts ought to focus on workers most vulnerable to job cuts and automation.
“There is an opportunity to build a new kind of workplace, one that could be more inclusive if we are really committed to doing that,” says Dr Niki Vincent, commissioner for equal opportunity in South Australia and convenor of the SA Chiefs for Gender Equity.
Women are overrepresented in automation-risky jobs, such as secretaries and retail workers. Vincent suggests governments can play a role in encouraging more women to study Stem fields, which will open pathways to the very likely-remote jobs of the future. “The fact is there are still not enough women choosing to study things like engineering or coding,” she adds, noting that only 16% of Stem professionals in Australia are women.
Companies also need to throw their weight when it comes to upskilling, and cease taking the easy road of downsizing. “Upskilling is a fantastic idea, but it means you’ve actually got to invest in your workforce,” Charlesworth says.
Downsizes, as witnessed at Woolworths and Worley, are likely to continue until companies acknowledge, or are incentivised, to upskill their employees instead of cutting them off the payroll.
“As a country, we have really dropped the ball in terms of on-the-job training,” Charlesworth adds.
Companies ‘shooting themselves in the foot’
Attitudes on remote working have shifted so dramatically in the last four months that workers are now setting expectations for flexible conditions as a factor in choosing the right job. Companies who want to go back to a 9-to-5 mandatory working culture will be “shooting themselves in the foot”, Vincent says.
Cultural acceptance of remote working will encourage more companies to embrace a flexible approach. If they don’t, they could lose out on talent. “Organisations that are more opportunistic about finding the right talent when they can, wherever they want to reside, will have a competitive advantage,” Dua says.
That message has been heard by business leaders, who also see a benefit in accessing a larger talent pool not confined to geography.
“[That] we can access talent in remote locations means we can really assess the best person for a role based on capability, with location not being a significant factor,” Carlile says.
One of Australia’s leading law firms appears to be following suit, with Pike declaring the office “will now be the exception rather than the rule”.
It is an exciting thought – living in the Hunter Valley or sitting on a beachfront in Port Douglas while remotely plugging into a decent-paying corporate job headquartered in Sydney or Melbourne.
If the pro-remote attitudes at Metlife Australia and HSF are indicative of corporate Australia’s thinking, that dream might actually become a reality. The challenge now is ensuring vulnerable workers aren’t left behind.