Nearly one in five Australian workers will continue working from home for at least some of the week after COVID restrictions ease, new research shows.
A report released this week by the CSIRO and NBN Co found cities that experienced longer COVID-19 outbreaks during 2020 and early 2021 had a higher rate of people continuing to work from home during COVID-free times in May compared to other areas.
The research, which analysed aggregated NBN data and demographic statistics from the ABS, shows working from home was most popular in Melbourne (28 per cent of workers) and Sydney (27 per cent), cities that experienced the longest lockdowns in Australia over the previous year.
CSIRO Data61 economist Andrew Reeson said pandemic restrictions had “greatly accelerated” a pre-existing move towards more flexible working, with only one in 20 Australians working from home before the pandemic.
A workplace ‘dealbreaker’
Swinburne University’s Centre for the New Workforce director Sean Gallagher said “workers are clearly not returning to the office” full-time.
But offices aren’t going to be completely empty in the future, as workers want the best of both worlds: To work remotely and in person.
“We did research … what we found is that every single worker who had a work-from-home experience wants to convert to flexible working,” Dr Gallagher said.
“So we see that flexible working will become the predominant working arrangement.”
He said home-based workers want to spend one-and-a-half days a week in the office, and office-based workers want to spend about four days in the office.
Workers that regard themselves as “truly flexible” want to split their time between home and the office “50-50”, he said.
But future mutations of COVID-19 could encourage workers to spend more time at home.
Dr Gallagher said Australians are keen to stay away from the office as they are afraid of the public health threat posed by new strains of COVID-19, such as Delta and the recent Omicron variant.
The longer they work from home, the more entrenched they become in that working style, he said.
Already, 43 per cent of Australian white-collar workers say they would leave an employer that does not offer flexible working arrangements for an employer that does, a national survey conducted by the Centre for the New Workforce shows.
The CSIRO’s Dr Reese said that mixing remote and in-person workplaces has proved successful, especially for people fortunate enough to have the space at home to do so.
The best of both worlds
Dr Gallagher said home-based workers are more productive than office-based and flexible workers but have the lowest levels of job satisfaction.
“We think it’s because the commute time has been replaced with work time … so their work day is extended,” he said.
“They are suffering collaboration overload … email overload, and they’re the least satisfied with their jobs. In other words, it’s unsustainable.”
Working remotely is great for individual productivity, but working in the office is better for collaborative work, creativity and building relationships, Dr Gallagher said.
He said organisations should be clear on what tasks they want employees to do at home and what tasks they want employees to do in the office to help them work effectively without getting overwhelmed.