Forced experiment: Productivity Commission suggests remote working is likely to stay

Some employees say they would take a pay cut to work from home.

A new research paper by the Productivity Commission has indicated that while working from home is not for everyone, it is likely to stay even after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The research paper [PDF] found that prior to the pandemic, about 8% of people regularly worked from home. These people were most likely female, older than those who did not work from home, worked part-time, provided care for children and people with disability, and lived in regional or remote areas. This percentage, however, increased to 40%, even when stay-at-home orders eased in early 2021.

"While this percentage may not always remain so high it is inevitable that more Australians will work from home," Productivity Commission chair Michael Brennan said.

The report also showed that the pandemic created a "forced experiment" on workers and firms when it came to working from home, showing many jobs -- mainly those occupations that typically use computers and require less public interaction -- could work remotely.

The report highlighted some benefits that came with working from home included cost and time savings as employees did not have to commute into work, the ability to work effectively from home, and flexibility to combine paid work with other tasks. More control over time, including giving people time to sleep, exercise, and cook nutritious food were also cited as benefits.

There are also downsides to working from home, the report said. It pointed out working from home could have long-term effects on career prospects as it reduces opportunities for networking and face-to-face interaction with managers, as well as mental and physical health effects due to increased social isolation and hours of work.

The Productivity Commission said it expected workers and firms to negotiate what working-from-home arrangements would look like going forward, dubbing it the "second wave of experimentation" involving some trial and error. A so-called hybrid model where workers split their time between the office and home is also anticipated to be a popular outcome.

"Working from home won't suit everyone or every business but for many employees working from home arrangements will be a factor in deciding which job to take," Brennan said.

"Some employees have even indicated they would be prepared to take less pay in return for the ability to work from home."

These findings are further echoed by research that Microsoft carried out internally. According to Microsoft ANZ chief operating officer Steven Miller, nearly three-quarters of staff wanted to return to the office to collaborate in-person with co-workers and for social interaction but at the same time, they enjoyed skipping the commute into the office and a healthy work-life balance. 

He described this feedback as a paradox that many companies will face post-pandemic and something that would need to be considered.

"Every leader, every organisation will need to create new operating models across people, places, and process, and those same companies will need to have a better employee experience for all employees, whether that be in the virtual boardroom or on the factory floor, or the retail store. Those companies that attract and retain their better talent will thrive in the next phase of our post-pandemic recovery," Miller said. 

The Productivity Commission report also noted the potential role that regulation could play as work-from-home arrangements grow. It raised questions about what health and safety risks could arise when working from home, what responsibilities firms have to address common household risks, and how firms could ensure workers have the "right to disconnect".

It warned that government needed to monitor regulations to "ensure they are safe and fair as well as flexible and efficient, and continue to reflect the reality of many people's daily work", but it believes no immediate action needs to be taken.

"On balance working from home can unlock significant gains in terms of flexibility and time for employees and could even increase the nation's productivity," Brennan said.

"Risks can be managed but we should keep an eye on them and be ready to intervene if necessary."

Westpac switches branch legacy phone system for Microsoft Teams Calling

Westpac said it will begin rolling out Microsoft Teams Calling at all its branches to support its increasingly remote workforce.

The move will see Westpac consolidate its multiple legacy phone and voicemail systems into a single cloud-based platform that will allow voicemails to be transcribed in Teams and access via mobile phone.

The move comes off the back of Westpac deploying software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) technology in all branches last year to improve the speed of internet and technology capabilities.

"The SD-WAN deployment last year really set the foundation for us to deliver improved digital solutions in branches," Westpac workplaces services head Paul McKenna said.

"MS Teams Calling means our branch employees are able to answer customer calls from anywhere, which is particularly important as employees in some COVID hotspots are working remotely."

Since deploying SD-WAN in branches, Westpac said it has also commenced the rollout of the technology in its corporate sites and will start deployment in international offices next year. 

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