The coronavirus has changed work forever

Like most developed nations, Australia has embraced working from home in recent weeks. It’s an experiment that will have lasting and profound consequences, says Dr Sarah Bankins from Macquarie Business School.

Video-conferencing and instant-messaging platforms such as Zoom, Skype, Slack and Teams were around before COVID-19 put most of the world in lockdown.

Despite the fact that technology has changed how we think about face-to-face contact, many businesses have continued to focus on congregating employees in bricks-and-mortar workplaces.

Prior to March 2020, many organisations resisted allowing their staff to work from home (WFM), often driven by a belief that workers needed to be visible to be productive. Famously, Marissa Mayer banned remote working back in 2013 shortly after becoming CEO of Yahoo.

Infrastructure is ready

In the absence of lockdown-inducing pandemics, it’s likely that widespread remote working would have remained something of a novelty, at least for another 5-10 years. But it’s now been convincingly demonstrated that the technological infrastructure, and managerial trust, required to allow millions of Australian workers to WFH is in place.

However, this infrastructure is far from perfect. A Skype call isn’t quite the same as an in-person face-to-face meeting. Connectivity issues can still inhibit seamless, interruption-free calls.

There are privacy issues that need to be addressed by WFH-facilitating platform providers such as Zoom. And endless Slack messages can make it difficult to focus on your work.

It is now clear to both employers and employees that there is no real reason, beyond organisational inertia, that the types of work practices instituted well over a century ago need to dominate workplaces in the third decade of the 21st century.

The human puzzle

It’s too early for there to be reliable academic research available on the workforce impacts of this pandemic. But judging from social media feeds, media reports and past research, Australian employees are reacting to WFH in the ways employees offered the option to work remotely typically do.

Lots of them have now developed a new-found love for their traditional office space. Working in an office helps demarcate ‘work’ from ‘home’, allows for easy interactions with colleagues and probably facilitates task completion for them better than WFH does, particularly given the childcare, homeschooling and other responsibilities many workers are currently required to manage.

On the other hand, there are undoubtedly many who have fallen in love with WFH. These individuals are singing the praises of not having the daily (and often lengthy) commute into an office. They are also delighted by having more flexibility around balancing their personal responsibilities and work duties.

In between those two ends of the spectrum are lots of people who would like to have the best of both worlds. This group, which I suspect the majority of us fall into, want both the human interaction that comes with spending some time in the office as well as the relatively distraction-free ‘concentration time’ that WFH enables.

New normal

Many cash-strapped businesses may want to reduce their real-estate costs once the Australian economy moves into a recovery phase. They may also have discovered that their workers are happier and more productive out of the office than in it.

Plenty of employees, having experienced the joys of WFH, will be looking for their employers to continue these, and even work-from-anywhere, practices. There will likely be an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ period when the lockdown is lifted and organisations seek to ramp up their operations.

After that, it is likely that remote working will be far more common in roles where it is feasible post-pandemic. For example, roles that don’t require daily face-to-face, in-person interaction with clients, colleagues, other stakeholders, or on-site infrastructure are generally well-suited to wider WFH opportunities. This includes a range of white-collar knowledge workers, such as those in professional services/consulting, technical and administrative support, and those in research/data/policy analysis.

Also businesses might be more willing to embrace radical innovations, technological or otherwise, in the future. After reimagining and rejigging their business models and work practices in an incredibly short period of time in early 2020, business owners and C-suite executives may have more confidence to experiment with new technologies and new ways of working in the years to come.