Don’t forget your home work

A home office setup.
Many workers enjoy the informality of working from home. Photo: Britt Selvitelle

Working from home will continue to be an attractive option to those who can, even once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, according to experts.

Lockdowns instituted across every state in March in response to Australia’s COVID-19 outbreak required anyone who was reasonably able to work from home to do so.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in May that 39 per cent of the country’s workforce was working from home.

This tripled the 13 per cent of workers that reported working from home in March, before the pandemic hit Australian shores.

These statistics do not account for workers who do not have the option of remote work.

University of Queensland economist John Quiggin said the rapid transition to remote work initially created many challenges for workers.

“An effective home office needs a decent place to sit, and a decent chair, and a decent computer, and not everyone necessarily has access to those,” Professor Quiggin said.

Curtin University management expert Steve McKenna said that after workers had adjusted to remote work, many found working from home to be more beneficial than working in an office: “People aren’t stuck to traditional office hours and they can build their working lives around the other components of their lives.”

Professor Quiggin said the main benefit of remote work that workers were experiencing is the absence of commuting.

“The average person spends about half an hour commuting to work each day, and if you can save that half an hour each way, that’s an hour you can allocate to other tasks,” he said.

Central Queensland University business and law expert Robin Price said she expected arrangements where people share time between going to a place of work and remote work to become more popular now that many workers had experienced working from home for the first time.

“You get the best of both worlds, you get some interaction and the benefits of interacting with other people, plus you get quiet time with no distractions,” she explained.

The right to request a flexible work arrangement is guaranteed under the Fair Work Ombudsman’s National Employment Standards, but employers have a large amount of discretion in denying requests.

Associate Professor McKenna said he expected businesses that had been hostile to remote work to become more hospitable in the future, allowing more people to work from home.

“One of the main issues with working from home is managerial trust, but I think as organisations see that it doesn’t affect performance and it can improve productivity, they will be more open to it,” he said.

While every state has since lifted hard lockdowns, the ABS reported in September that 31 per cent of employed Australians were still working from home in some capacity.

Professor Quiggin said the pandemic had forced offices to significantly change: “I think unless the pandemic goes away fairly quickly, we won’t be seeing the open plan, fairly crowded office that we’ve seen in the past.”

Dr McKenna was less convinced and said while the rate of remote work had exploded out of necessity due to the pandemic, a place still existed for the traditional office setup: “I think the social component of an office will become more important, and people will be going there to catch up and socialise more than anything.”