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Working from home became de rigueur for many people in 2020.
Travel restrictions and social distancing on account of a contagious virus meant that there was a large increase in the number of people setting up workplaces in their spare room on the kitchen bench.
But not all jobs can be done from the comfort of your spare room, so what are the characteristics of the working from home population? What insights can be gain from the available data?
The ABS has increased its data collection activity since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold early in 2020, with a number of additional and more timely releases.
If this rate was applied to the number of employed persons at May 2020, that equates to approximately 5.7 million people working from home.
However, the number of employed persons counted in the ABS labour force survey includes people who are receiving JobKeeper payments through their employer.
Taking this into account, the actual working from home population will be less, but because Jobkeeper is paid to an employer is difficult to ascertain how many people are included in the scheme.
The overwhelming majority of people who aren’t working from home indicated that they couldn’t due to the type of job they had.
Unfortunately, there are limited data accompanying this release to provide greater insights.
More recent research by the National Growth Areas Authority (NGAA) and analysis by the ABC have shed more light on various aspects of the working from home population.
For instance, the NGAA report found that 57% of workers in outer growth area suburbs have been working from home at least one day a week, and that two-thirds would like to continue to do so once restrictions ease.
This will clearly have work-life benefits for residents of outer suburbs who experience long commuting times getting to work in central city areas.
The ABC analysis, which used data from Google and NSW Transport, claimed a spatial pattern to working from home in Sydney.
People in inner areas more likely to work from home, which seems to contradict the NGAA research.
The ABC analysis looked at the experience of two workers – a human resources professional working from home in Bondi, and a labourer from the western suburbs who is still commuting.
However the 2016 Census data (presented below) shows that people in professional occupations are more likely to work from home.
I would suggest the spatial pattern is more related to the type of job you have, rather than residential location on its own.
2016 Census data
Data collected via the Census provides insights into how people travel to work.
In general, the data is used to inform transport planning and policy.
However working from home is one of the options respondents can select on the Census form.
This provides an opportunity to gain further insight into the characteristics of people who work from home.
It should be remembered that the data collected refers to how people travelled to work on the day of the Census, so it may not represent all people who work from home.
Although the 2016 Census data is four years old, it still provides a good indication of the characteristics of the working from home population.
It also provides a benchmark upon which the 2021 Census will show changes in travel to work behaviour and what has become the new normal for many people.
For this reason, it’s worthwhile revisiting this dataset.
The 2016 Census shows us that 503,580 persons worked from home, representing 4.7% of employed persons.
This was an increase of 13.4% on the 2011 figure of 443,920.
At the same time, the number of employed persons increased by 6.2%.
This shows that the working from home population increased at double the rate of the number of employed persons.
Industry of employment
The table below shows the main industries of employment for people who work from home.
Workers in the Professional, Scientific and Technical Services (PSTS) industry comprised just under 20% of those who worked from home in 2016.
This was followed by workers in Agriculture (14%).
The PSTS industry covers job types that generally require a high degree of expertise and tertiary qualifications, such as consulting, law, scientific research and accounting.
These are the sorts of roles that can be done more easily at home, either as a sole trader or as an employee.
Agricultural workers often live and work on the same property, which partly explains the higher proportion of those working at home.
Conversely, workers in the Mining, and Electricity, Gas, Water and Waste Services Industries comprised less than 1% of the working from home population.
This of course can be explained by the nature of operations in these industries, whereby work locations are at specific sites such as an open cut mine or waste management facility – not the sort of things people have in their backyard!
Around half (56%) of those working from home were in manager or professional occupations, and a further 20% were in clerical and administration roles.
Manager and professional roles have a strong relationship with the PSTS industry and Agriculture.
For instance, farmers are considered to be managers, and jobs in the PSTS industry are typically associated with professional, knowledge economy roles.
In contrast, machinery operators and drivers and labourers comprised just 1% and 3% respectively of the working from home population.
These occupations tend to require specialised equipment on a specific site, or travelling between locations, and therefore are less likely to be able to be done in a household setting.
Sector of employment
The overwhelming majority (96%) of people working from home were in the private sector, despite comprising 84% of all employed persons.
This is likely to be a combination of factors such as sole traders, family businesses and possibly more flexible working arrangements.
Overall the number of public sector employees working from home was small.
Commonwealth Government workers were most likely to work from home, but only comprised 2% of the total number.
Security, privacy and layers of bureaucracy may partly explain why the public sector comprises such a small proportion of the working from home population.
The number of hours worked by those working from home showed contrasting results.
About 22% worked 1-15 hours a week, and a further 21% worked for more than 49 hours.
In other words, either very short or very long weeks!
However just under a half worked 1-34 hours, indicating that many who work from home are part-time or possibly casual workers.
How does this relate to the workplace in 2020?
Since 2016, technology and working conditions have changed considerably.
Improved technology infrastructure such as the expansion of the NBN network facilitate the shift to working from home.
More employers are also providing flexible working arrangements which include options to work from home.
Social media giants such as Facebook have embraced the shift to working from home, announcing that they plan to do this permanently.
As mentioned above, 46% of respondents in a recent ABS survey said that they were working at home.
However, it’s difficult to apply this proportion to the current labour force due to the complicated nature of working arrangements in 2020.
People receiving JobKeeper are considered to be employed in the ABS labour force survey, but they are technically not working.
In addition, economic and social restrictions vary by state and even by region.
For instance, at August 2020 metropolitan Melbourne is at Stage 4 restrictions whereas regional Victoria is at Stage3.
The directive for people in Melbourne is that those who can work from home must do so.
The impact of COVID-19 related restrictions has had an uneven impact across the industry spectrum, with job losses concentrated in industries where people congregate in larger numbers, typically as customers.
ABS data shows that the change in payroll jobs between 14 March and 8 August 2020 was highest in Food and Accommodation Services (-18%) and Arts and Recreation Services (-15%).
These proportions were even higher in Victoria, -31% and -25% respectively.
As mentioned above, the PSTS industry comprised 20% of the working from home population, but even this industry has recorded a decline in the number of payroll jobs in Australia since March (-5%).
While it’s possible to estimate the number of job losses with these ABS data releases, the overall picture is complicated by different restrictions, differences in workplace conditions and personal preferences.
Australia’s next Census will be held on 10th August 2021. Hopefully by that time we will progress to a post-COVID world when the labour market is more stable. The data collected on the working from home population in the 2021 Census will provide greater insights than is currently possible from available data.
46% of Australian workers indicated they were working from home in a recent ABS survey.
This suggests that 5.7 million people are working from home, but the picture is complicated by the definition of employed persons in the ABS labour force survey.
This considers JobKeeper recipients as employed, even though they are not technically working.
Despite more recent studies, the 2016 Census provides greater insights into the working from home population.
They tend to be highly skilled workers in professional and managerial occupations, as well as farmers working on their own properties.
The 2021 Census will provide more insight into how the working from home population has changed in recent years.
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