One of the largest shifts we have seen in the past 18 months, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the way we live and work, is the swift new reality of remote working.
Covid-19 has changed everything about the way we live and work as stay-at-home orders, social distancing and snap lockdowns force all Australians to reassess the concept of the workplace, the commute to the workplace and what they need from their home.
A recent economic analysis blog by demographers Informed Decisions explains that the recovery period following economic downturns can accelerate the transition of industries and already existing and emerging trends.
What does that actually mean?
It means workers have been forced to work from home and businesses have been forced to adapt their way of working to facilitate that.
And with the pandemic rearing its ugly head once again, particularly in NSW which is currently facing its second wave with cases far exceeding those seen during the initial crisis, it looks like the remote working trend is not only something that is set to stick around but even becomes a permanent shift or a new reality.
Let’s go back to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and look at what happened.
When the pandemic hit Australian shores early last year, governments implemented strict stay-at-home policies for non-essential workers.
Unsurprisingly, this saw a plummet in work trips across major cities and an increase in time spent at home.
Using google mobility data, we saw that trips to Melbourne’s CBD (City of Melbourne LGA) fell by 66% compared to pre-Covid, Sydney fell by 61%, the blog’s author notes.
Meanwhile, the time spent at home increased substantially for many inner-city suburbs within easy commuting distance to the CBD.
There were LGAs in Australia where time at home increased by more than 25% (average of 4 hours per day) and aside from all being in Greater Sydney or Greater Melbourne, the other common factor for these LGAs is an industry of employment, the blog said.
In 14 out of 20, the top industry of employment for residents is Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services (NIEIR, 2021).
In the other 6, this industry is either the 2nd or 3rd largest employer.
By the end of the year, many LGAs in Australia were back to normal.
Interestingly, even when lockdowns eased and some type of normality returned, the majority of inner-suburban areas in Sydney and Melbourne were still experiencing residents being at home by 10-15% more than pre-Covid-19 levels (extra 1.5-3 hrs a day or 1-2 days per week).
The February 2021 ABS Household Impacts of Covid-19 Survey showed two in five people with a job (41 per cent) worked from home at least once a week in February 2021, compared with 24 per cent at least once a week before March 2020.
Fast forward to today and the remote working trend has gone full circle, particularly in Greater Sydney where workers are once again forced into strict lockdowns and are under stay-at-home orders.
Some LGAs in Australia are likely to be affected more than others if the working from home trend becomes a longer-term reality.
For example, in 2016 Brisbane was home to 7% of all Australia's employed residents who were working in finance, IT, professional and technical industries and also working from home at the time of the Census which isn’t surprising given that the LGA is the largest in the country by the number of residents.
Many other large LGAs are represented, but some are quite small.
Such as Bayside (Victoria) and Ku-ring-gai (NSW) which are highly affluent areas supporting less than 60,000 employed residents in 2016.
However, they were both in the top 15 in terms of residents employed in home-based knowledge-intensive business areas.
And the chart showing locations that have a high share of remote working white-collar employed residents working from home also paints an interesting picture.
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The top 15 LGAs are really a who's who of the richest locations in Australia or major luxury lifestyle destinations.
This perhaps highlights that prior to Covid-19, working from home was really dominated by wealthy business owners/entrepreneurs or those senior enough to demand flexible working conditions (for example, 69% in Mosman were owner/managers), the blog explains.
Going forward, the distribution is likely to be more evenly spread as employers become more flexible and adapt to remote working needs in order to remain in business as areas of the country go in and out of lockdown.
And some industries have already made a great start.
For example, there seems to be a shift for what were traditionally public sector office-based roles to be working more from home, the blog states.
In fact, according to a Roy Morgan poll, the public sector is one of the largest adopters of remote working during the pandemic.
And the sector isn’t alone.
There are many Australian businesses and industries which have been forced to adapt in order to survive this once-in-a-lifetime event.
We already know that the accelerated trend for people to work from home supports what we’re seeing in the property market - the rise of the 20-minute neighbourhood.
Last year offices were shut, lockdowns were in place and now people are likely to continue working flexible rosters and working at home more than ever.
This means gone are the days where our ‘home’ was simply the place we rest our heads and enjoy some downtime between work and our social lives – the coronavirus social distancing has put an end to life as we once knew it.
If social distancing and the Covid-19 environment has taught us anything, it has taught us the importance of the neighbourhood we live in.
If you can leave your home and be within walking distance of, or a short trip to, a great shopping strip, your favourite coffee shop, amenities, the beach, a great park, the recently implemented coronavirus restrictions might seem a little more palatable than if you had none of that on your doorstep.
And all this means people will pay a premium to be in the right neighbourhood, and this shows in our nation’s continued property price surge.
Not only that but the shift to remote working has also seen buyers look for bigger properties that have the room to work, play and live all under one roof.
It makes sense then that the property boom is being driven by upgraders.
These upgrades are being driven by a variety of factors: the need for more space, access to cheaper money, or wanting a change post lockdown.
The downside is these types of home buyers are relatively impatient and are emotionally charged.
We are seeing this play out currently with many commentators noticing the FOMO (fear of missing out) trend creeping into a cycle that is only 3 to 4 months old.
They may also be driven by an extended period of “forced savings” due to Lockdowns and Border closures and have above average rates of savings to contribute.
After weekend upon weekend of unsuccessful offers, they buy emotionally and think nothing about paying an extra 5% or 10% above market value.
Councils may need to consider adjustments to planning if the working from home trend becomes a longer-term reality, the Informed Decisions blog said.
- Supporting the establishment of co-working or “Work Near Home” suburban shared workspace facilities in high amenity retail/commercial hubs.
- Looking for opportunities to repurpose vacant or underutilised premises and/or ensure new developments provide enough smaller adaptive commercial space.
- Exploring surveying local professional services home-based businesses/employees to investigate the scale and needs of this market.
- Have a plan to manage a potential increase of waste in suburban areas (COVID-19 reversed a long-term trend, increasing household waste by 20% during 2020).
- Identifying if transport infrastructure needs to be adapted for potentially lower work trips, but increased weekday local suburban movement.
- Taking a look at your own council's work policies and ensure they support flexibility, but do not disadvantage anyone who takes up the opportunity for remote working over someone who doesn’t.