Forced away from city centres to slow the spread of coronavirus, the work-from-home revolution has shown many jobs can be done from the suburbs as easily as they were in humming office buildings housing thousands of workers.
- Business process outsourcing (BPO) is where parts of a company’s core operations are outsourced to third-party providers
- Economists warn that many businesses will realise they can operate with fewer workers or perhaps cheaper workers located overseas
- However, some companies are onshoring rather than offshoring during the COVID-19 crisis, with Westpac bringing back 1,000 call centre jobs from overseas
Could the shift be the change that regional Australia has long waited for? Or does it mark the moment Australians have to compete in the global market for jobs, with equally qualified but much cheaper workers?
Rachel Bragg is a paraplanner, preparing documents and complicated modelling for the clients of financial planners in gleaming towers in the major capital cities. But she does it from Kandanga, population 665, 50 kilometres inland from Noosa in Queensland.
“It’s possible, with technology the way it is, you don’t need to be in a big city,” Ms Bragg, director of Franc Paraplanning, said.
The way Ms Bragg is employed — and employs others — is called BPO: business process outsourcing. Financial planners meet clients and sell them plans, then pay her to do the grunt work of drafting legal agreements to cement the deal.
It is long-established for front-line tasks, such as call centres and help desks, to be contracted out to companies that specialise in running and maintaining those services.
As Athena Consulting founder Frances Quinn describes it, you will have almost certainly used a BPO service if you have ever queried an online order, enquired about a service or checked on an invoice you were meant to be paid.
“The (service) is generally somebody who’s ‘white label’, so they present themselves as though they are your company,” she said.
Ms Quinn works with call centres, but that simplistic description undersells what those services do.
The internet and apps have largely killed off simple queries such as checking a bank balance or booking an appointment. What is left are difficult queries and managing what is called the “customer experience”, or CX.
It is the whole life of a customer’s contact with a company, from being found, set up with a service, having loyalty managed, being retained and getting them to pay up when needed.
BPO is how you “give discrete pieces of work to someone, to complete them on your behalf,” she explained. And that is important, because BPO services are now doing increasingly complex business tasks that could change how organisations divvy up their workforce.
Australia sells an image of untamed outback and rolling paddocks, but the stark truth is, we are one of the most urbanised nations on earth.
Our population clings to the coast, packed overwhelmingly in a small number of capital cities growing at huge rates. Regional centres and rural areas have long sought to lure employers to their areas, or to import professional-level – and well-paid – jobs.
But is BPO the answer or a further threat?
Shutting offices and sending workers home during the pandemic may have opened the eyes of some bosses to a tough reality — they do not need as many staff as before.
“I think that that’s clearly a risk, and it’s obviously a risk that the Government’s worried about as well,” according to KPMG Australia’s Dr Brendan Rynne.
The consulting firm’s chief economist said the design of the JobKeeper wage subsidy — paid by the company to cement the link between employers and employees — showed the Federal Government’s concern about businesses using technology to shed workers.
“The moment that you make it easier for them to break that connection, the harder it is going to be for those people to find those jobs back in the workforce — even as the economy starts to pick up.”
The enforced work-from-home period has starkly exposed how much workers produce and who is really needed, he added.
“What you’re going to see is businesses realise that they’re in fact able to produce either a similar amount of output, or something close to it, with much fewer workers,” he warned.
“That’s the concern that I’m sure the Government has.
“So, yes, we may get a productivity pick-up — as a consequence of the adoption of new technologies and new ways to work — but it’s going to come at the expense of people in the labour force.”
The biggest company you’ve never heard of
Probe Group employs 6,000 people in Australia, and even more in the Asian region, to answer phones, deal with customers and more. You have probably never heard of them, even if you have spoken with them, and that is how they like it.
“We actually consider that we are our client’s business, we embed ourselves within them and we provide services customised, designed for them,” said chief executive Andrew Hume.
“In actual fact, if you speak to people and say, ‘Who do you work for?’, they typically say the client they’re representing.”
Mr Hume said the bulk of work being sent offshore is less complex, and thus more likely to be automated in the near future.
Locals are being engaged — many in regional locations — on more difficult, sensitive and higher-value tasks.
“Things like finance and accounting, help desk support … and what are now being called knowledge services,” he outlined.
“Very specialised tasks like web app development, SEO (search engine optimisation) support, content moderation, mortgage origination: so, very precise and complex knowledge tasks.”
With mainly complicated customer queries left, and concerns about data security and privacy, companies are now “re-shoring” jobs. Westpac just brought 1,000 call centre jobs back from India and The Philippines.
“There’s a shift to bring work back on shore,” Mr Hume said.
“Companies created a bit of risk for themselves by being overly concentrated in (countries) where that country wasn’t able to recover from the COVID situation.
“And where work is coming back on-shore, we see it moving into a work-from-home setting.”
Global market goes both ways
From Singapore, Charlies Ferguson runs an “employer of record” — a way for companies to hire people in different countries without having to open their own business there.
For him, where businesses are based or the location where a task gets completed does not need to be as fixed and permanent as an office tower in an Australian capital.
“I would direct attention to the overseas expansion opportunities for small-to-medium and large businesses in Australia,” said Mr Ferguson, Globalization Partners’ general manager for the Asia-Pacific region.
“The go-between sees the potential for Australian companies to expand, matched by putting Australian workers into a globally accessible talent pool.
“So the opportunity for workers — not only in the major (cities) on the east coast and Perth in the west, but also in the regions — to now have access to a global job market is a tremendous opportunity.
“I’m a constant optimist, but I think it’s a glass-half-full story, not a scary story.”
Out of offices, out of cities
High unemployment looks set to drag on people’s lives, and the economy, for years.
Technology and the drive to business process outsourcing opens up regional — and global — competition to previously protected and high-wage jobs.
The dispersed, piecemeal work may benefit some people, but has the potential to be a precarious and insecure way to base employment.
“It’s a massive opportunity within the entire labour market,” said Frances Quinn, who consults to the BPO sector.
“To realise that I don’t need to have a full-time payroll person and a full-time marketing person and a full-time facilities person in my organisation in order to deliver the outcomes that my organisation needs to deliver.”
The tools for remote working — email, video-conferencing and file-sharing — have been available for almost two decades, but Australian companies have been loath to allow employees to work from home, even as commuting times have exploded due to suburban population growth.
Whether the response to the pandemic is a permanent shift away from what has been magnetic growth in the major capital cities will have to wait to be seen.
But proponents like Ms Quinn see the normalisation of work-from-home practices — and more business process outsourcing — as inevitable for Australian companies.
“The pandemic has forced their hand in creating some of that flexibility,” she said.
“And that might start to tip them over the edge to realising that there is another way.”
Sitting on her veranda, a half-hour from the nearest traffic light, paraplanner Rachel Bragg feels the change.
She grew up in Coolaman, near Wagga Wagga, and watched young people like herself leave town to find work opportunities.
“Because there’s no industry, there’s no work there for people,” she said.
“One of the main reasons for creating this business is so we can create those jobs and you don’t need to go into an office.
“You can effectively have the big-city jobs but out in rural communities. It’s important.”