Working From Home: Unintended Consequences for Australian Workers

Working from home. 

Unintended Consequences for Australian Workers

Working from home during Covid-19 has been a blessing for many of us. Both employees and companies have rallied together to achieve some amazing results. Nothing like a crisis to unite people and create new opportunities, however, are some unintended consequences lurking in the shadows?

Prior to the pandemic less than a third of Australian employees worked regularly from home. (4.1 million workers) According to the ABS this rose to 46 percent of the workforce in late April and early May 2020.

For some companies who had the technology, the transition was almost seamless while others struggled to varying degrees. Some companies went above and beyond to help employees adjust to working from home. For example, drink orders were taken and delivered on Friday afternoon for virtual happy hour, while others paid Netflix subscriptions to help children be entertained, or sent care packages home.

Other employees however have not been as fortunate as they have had to cover all their own costs including data and equipment. Some have been under enormous stress, particularly when colleagues have lost their jobs and they are expected to pick up additional work loads. This is particularly evident in the university sector where 20 to 30 thousand people are expected to lose their jobs.

Irrespective, according to Global Workplace Analytics and most company surveys, about 80% of employees prefer working from home at least part of the time. Most companies I have spoken to confirm their surveys confirm this view.

The pandemic has rapidly changed the landscape of work. Within the space of months working from home has moved from a privilege to a right for many employees. Many, not all, are enjoying saving time, money, more freedom and increased family time. 

It has been such a dramatic turn around.  One client expressed their concern that some employees were expecting to be paid travel expenses to return to work. While another client said her company was having difficulty getting people to return to the office.

One person described the change as: “It is not about work but rather the lifestyle work can provide.” One common concern was people felt they were operating in their own bubble and did not know what was going on in the organisation. They missed the grapevine and their personal connections with their colleagues.

There is no question that there are many advantages of working from home and the trend is likely to continue. However, as things have progressed so quickly, there has been little time to consider or proactively address potential unintended consequences. For example:

1. If a job can be done from anywhere will jobs stay in Australia

Jack Dorsey the CEO of Twitter in the USA has announced that employees can work from home forever including Australian employees. According to Forbes other big companies are following suit including JPMorgan, Facebook, Capital One, Amazon, Microsoft, Zillow, and others. 

It also has a flip side of course as Forbes also highlights. Companies won’t be limited to the pool of applicants that reside within just commuting distance. Once people are permitted to work remotely, they can work anywhere in the world and can be paid according to the country in which they live.

Australia is no different. Salaries and working conditions apply when a worker is brought to Australia on a skilled migrant visa, but not when the worker remains in a foreign country and does the job remotely.?

 2. Will job insecurity increase as companies restructure to reduce costs?

Naturally many of my corporate clients are actively looking to reduce costs due to the impact of Covid-19 and the recession. Floor space is one and changing work arrangement’s is another.

There has been a trend for companies to reduce permanent employees and transfer the cost of employment like superannuation, sick leave and annual leave to independent contractors This is what I call Waterfalling. As a consequence Independent Contractors have surged since 2013 from 8.5% to 11.2 %. It would be expected that this trend will continue as a consequence of Covid-19. 

According to Economist Tim Harcourt, at the UNSW Business School, he says “jobs might actually return to Australia in the short term however the problem is that in the longer term, there is little to stop jobs higher up the food chain moving offshore”.

3. Will inequality rise as the more privileged are able to work from home?

The higher a person’s salary, the most likely they are to be able to work from home. They gain the benefits of less time commuting, work life balance and reduction in costs by working from home.

According to a 2011 Canadian report of financial inequality in 2011 people who work from home spend less on food, clothing and transportation and the savings are from $600 to $3,500 annually for an individual telecommuting two days a week.

Many low-income workers do not have the option or benefits of working from home as they are in jobs that, for example, serve the public.

A few of my clients have already identified the disruption to the culture of the organisation. There is an invisible barrier forming between the haves who can work from home and the have nots who are unable to. Will reward and recognition policies be adjusted for example? The dilemma is how to manage the divide at an organisational and societal level? 

4. How negotiable will employee monitoring be for employees working from home?

On every form of media working from home is defined as a great success. It demonstrates that people can be trusted and are more productive from home.

This may be true however it begs the question why sales of employee monitoring

software systems have surged since the coronavirus pandemic was declared, with some companies reporting a 300 per cent increase in customers in Australia in the last two months.

Companies have already developed facial recognition tools that log when employees are absent from their computer screens while they work from home. The potential legal issues alone make the mind bogle.

These are serious issues which my clients and I are discussing. The good news is some discussions are starting, although many of the answers remain opaque. This is untrodden ground with different options for each situation.

One common recommendation I suggest however, is to facilitate a scenario planning session to identify what actions are required, to consider the unintended consequences that working from home may create. 

As appropriate to Covid-19, it’s about being proactive to flatten the curve to unintended consequences.


JB discussed this topic on ABC radio on July 7th 2020 as a part of her future of work series.

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