The “second wave” of home work is more complex, similar to how “living with COVID” is more chaotic than eliminating the virus. As soon as the locks are lifted, the second wave of experiments will ask: What does a “hybrid” model actually mean in practice?
The Commission says that the response of employers and workers will be decided through negotiation, testing and adjustment. As with any negotiation, there is something in common between employees and employers as both sides have an interest in changes that can improve productivity.
However, the phenomenon of home working is different from other innovations that have increased productivity, such as the introduction of electricity or computers, which initially benefited businesses. In contrast, the main benefit of working from home is that it allows people to avoid commuting.
And that brings us to a key finding of the Commission’s investigation: Employees and employers want things other than the home office revolution.
An empty platform at Waterloo underground station, during normal morning rush hour.Credit:AP
For employees, the commission cites survey data showing the greatest benefit in saving time commuting – which averaged 67 minutes a day for full-time workers in major Australian cities.
Around three quarters of those surveyed would like to work from home part of the time, but most employees would also like some time in the office. Less home activity and isolation have downsides, but the survey suggests that most of us don’t want to go to the office five days a week.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, employers are more concerned about productivity and costs. The Commission cites employers’ concerns that working from home can stifle creativity, reduce “chance exchanges”, weaken corporate culture and make it difficult to manage people. On the plus side, companies can save rent by taking up less office space and benefit from having their employees more productive at home because they can better manage their time.
These different priorities of employees and employers will form the framework for the second wave of experiments with home work.
The experiments could involve employees spending two or three days in the office and the rest at home, and companies will likely adjust their policies as they learn from their experiences and those of their competitors.
In the longer term, the Commission says workers who want to work from home most will have an incentive to find a job that can combine working from home with good pay and switch jobs accordingly. Others can negotiate with their existing employer to continue working from home by offering to accept lower wages, although this likely won’t be widespread.
Ultimately, the commission says that work from home arrangements that work for both workers and bosses should flourish while others that don’t work will die out. Employers and employees will agree on “consensual outcomes” and both sides will need to work on issues such as the work-life demarcation.
There is reason to be optimistic about the wider economic implications of all of this. The Commission says the effects of homeworking on a person’s productivity are “ambiguous”. But for the economy as a whole, she believes that working from home will not and could improve productivity as we all get better at making working from home easier and more effective.
Aside from this potential economic impact, the fact that so many people want some work to be done at home suggests that this is a change that could improve the wellbeing of millions of Australians. As the Commission says, “The welfare benefits of working from home are a clear and strong incentive to make it work.”
Ross Gittins is on leave.