Daily Management Review

Australians Are Fighting For The Permanent Ability To Work From Home


Australians Are Fighting For The Permanent Ability To Work From Home
The Melbourne property surveyor that uses drone operator Nicholas Coomber called its 180-person crew into the office each day at 9 a.m. to distribute assignments before COVID-19 sent one-third of the international workforce home.
Since the surveyors are now able to work from home, they can arrive at the field as early as 7.30 a.m., allowing Coomber to pick up his kids from creche earlier than he could before the pandemic.
"If they were to say 'everyone back in the office', I would probably be asking for a raise," said Coomber, who still visits the office once or twice a week. "You get more family time. You can actually finish work at five, rather than finishing at five spending 45 minutes trying to get home."
While business leaders like Tesla and Twitter CEO Elon Musk and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon call for an end to remote work arrangements from the pandemic era, unions in Australia are setting an example and pushing back, suing the nation's largest bank and negotiating with the federal government to demand that WFH, as it is known, become the norm.
"All the deep changes in the Australian labour market have come out of crises. When you have a jolt, you never return to the way the world was," said John Buchanan, head of the University of Sydney's Health and Work Research Network.
"We're always ahead of the pack in the English-speaking world, say compared to the UK, US, New Zealand."
Staff at Commonwealth Bank of Australia challenged the lender's order to work from the office half of the time in front of the industrial tribunal, feeling empowered by the lowest unemployment rate in fifty years.
500 senior managers were ordered back to work full-time in April by the CEO of National Australia Bank, the third-largest bank in Australia. In July, NAB and the union reached an agreement that grants the right to request WFH to all employees, including the 500 managers, with some restrictions on the reasons for denial.
The public sector union and the government reached an agreement the same week that allows Australia's 120,000 federal employees to request an unlimited number of days to work from home.
In contrast, the salaries agreement that Canadian federal employees received in May to conclude a two-week strike did not include the WFH provisions they had demanded. To fit a post-lockdown economy where actual office attendance is down on 2019 levels by anywhere from a fifth in Tokyo to more than half in New York, lawmakers in the European Union are still negotiating updates to decades-old "telework" protections.
"The genie's out of the bottle: working from home is something that is staying well beyond COVID and the pandemic," said Melissa Donnelly, the Community and Public Sector Union secretary who negotiated the Australian federal agreement.
"What was possible around working from home has absolutely been transformed," she added. "This is what this deal achieves. It will have a flow on effect across different industries."
According to CBA and NAB, their policies already permitted flexible working arrangements, which were commonly used, before the union agreements.
According to Mathias Dolls, deputy director of the ifo Centre for Macroeconomics and Surveys in Hamburg, which surveyed 35,000 workers and employers in 34 countries as part of a project with Stanford University, the gap between employee WFH demands and their bosses' return-to-office orders is a global constant even though the number of remote-work days sought by employees varies by country and industry.
According to the poll, 19% of employees with WFH experience desired to work there full-time. Workers sought two WFH days per week, which was double what the employers desired, and "the gap is not shrinking," according to Dolls.
 "I don't think we will see WFH levels going back to pre-pandemic levels."
Individual union agreements would not guarantee break the impasse, according to Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, a think tank, because employers would gain greater negotiating power if unemployment increased, a commonly anticipated side effect of increasing interest rates.
"The overall weight of opinion among workers is strongly they'd like to keep doing it and I think an emerging majority of employers are thinking, no, they want people back to work," Stanford said.
"That sets the stage for a historic confrontation."
The business model of office landlords has already been affected by the transition to remote work, which might account for as little as 2% of hours worked in Australia in 2019 and become the norm for white-collar employment. Office landlords report dropping property valuations amid worries about the decline in the amount of floorspace being rented by businesses.
According to industry data, about one-sixth of office space in the Australian capital city is vacant, which is a multi-year high given that in-person attendance is still at least a third lower than it was before the pandemic.
While WFH is bad news for real estate investors, employees like drone operator Coomber only see advantages: recent flexible work arrangements allowed him and his wife to continue working while their kids were too unwell to go to childcare for two weeks.
"It just helps get through life a little bit easier," he said.