Opinion

Working from home is here to stay: capitalists, businesses must adapt

Jenna Price
November 10 2023 - 5:30am
WATCH: Is working from home here to stay?

We will never work from work again.

Not now. Not ever. No amount of tantrums from commercial property owners will change that. We have changed. Capitalists need to keep up.

Sure, there will be the odd day when we go into our old places, have a skim latte at the local cafe with a barista shouting Janet (lukewarm tip: this is not my name). There will be days when our managers want to pull a self-importance stunt and demand everyone come in for a meeting where said managers talk too much and say too little. And which could easily have happened over Teams or some other equally appalling platform.

But for the most part, the office is dead. Thank god. These days I have zero interest in participating in sweeps or swaps or awful birthday cake morning teas for a person I have never previously met. I am so unsociable. Or, I have so much to do that I want to use discretionary time for things I consider matter more.

I say all this because it's true but also because the Property Council of Australia (ACT branch in particular) is stamping its increasingly tiny foot about those of us (so many of us) who work from home.

"Many employees are choosing nearly exclusively to work from home creating a drastic change to our city. Cities have always been the crucible of economic productivity and the epicentre of collaboration, the exchange of ideas, and the realisation of outcomes," writes Shane Martin, the Property Council's ACT and Capital Region executive director.

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"To thrive, our city needs people to 'work from work'. Being in a shared space during the week fosters new connections, team building, a sense of purpose, innovation and productivity."

Oh man, where's the proof of all those high-minded-sounding claims? Martin was utterly shredded in the comments on his article. I particularly loved the thoughtful (yet funny) response of 32-year-old Matthew McGranahan, so I wanted to chat to him in real life (which required a phone call). Matt is an IT worker and started his job at Eagle IT in 2019, just as the pandemic was set to hit. He knows all about the transition to working from home and he was there at the start, helping people to get their IT sorted. Takes a special kind of patience to do that.

As he put it: "Suddenly we had to have everyone staged up for remote working (VPN accounts, laptop and so on), we had to teach these people how to get connected, some people had poor internet service that also created issues. We also had policy considerations that employers hadn't thought of before."

So far, very serious. Then: "We all know of co-workers who jumped in a Teams meeting with no pants or the like."

As long as we can't see below the belt, what's the problem? Picture Shutterstock
As long as we can't see below the belt, what's the problem? Picture Shutterstock

Bugger. I missed that bit. I personally have never been in a Teams meeting where someone was pantless (or if they were, their laptop camera was firmly focused on their chin so pants were invisible. Folks, please try to set your cameras a little higher up. No one needs to see your nostril hair).

Here we are, post pantlessness, and we are OK. Better than OK.

The move to work from home has changed our lives for the better. I am sorry for Shane Martin's loss (of profit) but the facts are at this moment in time, the labour market recognises workers are more important than bosses. And workers want to work from home.

So I asked the University of Sydney's Rae Cooper whether she thought workers would ever return to the office. She, with colleagues, ran a survey to understand the attitudes of the under-40s about their working futures.

Before the pandemic, about one-third of workers were working from home one day per week. Now it's just 40 per cent. But here's the thing - nearly three-quarters of workers under 40 want to WFH. There's a lot of pent-up demand, employers! Get with the program.

As Cooper says: "There has always been significant unmet demand for good flexible working options, including work from home, in Australia.

"But the pandemic demonstrated to a sizeable group of the workforce that work from home is not only possible for their employers to deliver but really quite nice to break up full-time office hours."

The research also reveals one truly beautiful aspect of a changing Australia. Men also want workplace flexibility so they can manage care and work responsibilities better.

Now it's a fact not all of us have a choice to work from home because of what we do and the way our jobs are designed. Front-line workers are the fastest-growing group of the workforce, and the majority of these employees are women. Mostly, they can't work from home.

But here's why we want to work from home, says Cooper. First, it saves us commuting time (and that has a flow-on effect on our sleep and on our ability to exercise). Second, we can shift our work around to pick up kids or drop them off or ferry them somewhere. We get to eat our own lunch in our own kitchen, where the washing up is done every day. We get to put on a load of laundry then hang it out while the sun is still up.

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That's of benefit to me but here's how it benefits bosses. You can work uninterrupted. You can totally focus on the task at hand and no one will desk-bomb you. Desk-bombers are the biggest productivity sinks ever.

Back to our old mate at the Property Council.

There is no question if you are invested in commercial property, you will want people to be in those commercial properties. And that's combined with the irrelevant view of some employers that they like what Cooper calls, "a 'bums on seats' management style, where they like to see staff to be sure they are working".

Shame on them for their surveillance mentality. The time is right to reset reality and that includes working from home. As Cooper says: "Like it or not, the demand for work from home for some of the week is very strong and it is here to stay."

  • Jenna Price is a regular columnist and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.
Jenna Price

Jenna Price is a Canberra Times columnist and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.

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