Australian workers stayed away from the office during the pandemic – but many are yet to head back. Who is still working from home, and why?
Managing the question of ‘where work is done?’ has been one of the major challenges facing employers over the last three years. The COVID pandemic forced a scramble in early 2020 to rapidly adopt work-from-home wherever possible. Workplace practices – including the use of teleconferences in place of in-person contact – dramatically changed to adjust to the realities of the pandemic.
But with pandemic-era conditions now abating, many employers are thinking about where the new equilibrium should be. Does the workforce need to be called back to the office? Are pandemic-settings the new normal? Or is the sweet spot some mix of the two?
Understanding the evolving drivers of work-for-home practices is key to getting the balance right.
Working from home is now a widespread – and highly normalised – practice in Australia. According to ABS surveys conducted in April 2022, nearly half (46%) of all Australian employees now work from home to some degree. And 34% of Australian businesses utilise teleworking arrangements for at least a portion of their workforce.
While it is common to view work-from-home as a response to the pandemic, it in fact has a much longer history. As early as the 1980s, around a fifth of the Australian workforce conducted at least some of their work at home (see chart below).
These early forms were typically amongst the self-employed, particularly specialist tradespeople and creative sector workers. Once modern telecommunications became widespread in the 2000s, work-from home rates inched up slightly, to around one-in-three workers.
But work-from-home was still only adjunct to work primarily conducted onsite. Prior to the pandemic, the number of employees working-from-home most or all of the time was only a tiny fraction (5-10%) of the workforce. The expectation remained that the bulk of hours would be conducted in the workplace.
The public health measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 fundamentally changed our approach.
For employers, adopting work-from-home allowed some business continuity to be maintained during lockdowns. For employees, it provided flexibility to meet caring requirements (particularly during school and childcare closures). For both, it reduced the risk of exposure to COVID and other illnesses.
As a result, work-from-home was rapidly expanded in almost all jobs for which it was viable. The main change was in the frequency of the practice, not its existence. Overall work-from home rates grew only marginally – from 32% to 40% – during the pandemic. But ‘most of the time’ work-from-home rates tripled, and this category now accounts for a third of the Australian workforce.
What had previously been viewed as an ‘optional extra’ suddenly became a workplace norm.
Of course, not all businesses can utilise work-from-home. There are some industries where an employee’s physical presence is essential to their job. And in others, some roles can be done at home while others must be done onsite.
Unsurprisingly, we therefore see large variation in rates of teleworking by sector (see chart).
Some services sectors – like administrative and service roles – use it extensively for a large share of the workforce. Physically-based industries, like accommodation, construction and retail, very rarely use it.
Between these poles lie ‘mixed’ industries, which extend teleworking to some roles and not others. Mining, wholesale trade and real estate are examples.
There also appears to be a work-from-home ‘ratchet’ at play. While initially adopted as a temporary measure, it has now shifted to become a normal and expected workplace practice.
In April 2022, overall work-from-home rates in Australia were 46%, 6% higher than during the middle of the pandemic And the ‘most-of-the-time’ rate remained at 30%, despite public health restrictions having been largely removed.
Indeed, the reasons for utilising work-from-home practices have now changed. When the ABS surveyed businesses utilising teleworking in June 2022:
What started as a public health requirement has become a way to improve workplace flexibility for both employees and employers.
Indeed, businesses report they intend to continue their current practices.
Almost two-thirds (62%) expect their teleworking practices to stay the same, while only one in five (21%) intend to reduce it. 12% of businesses expect to increase teleworking despite COVID era restrictions abating.
This indicates that work-from-home is here to stay in the Australian workplace. The question now is how we can update our human resource and industrial relations practices to best utilise this new way of working.
Dr Jeffrey Wilson is Ai Group's Director of Research and Economics. He leads our economics team, and provides strategic direction in developing the research program to support our advocacy, service delivery and policy activities. He specialises in international economic policy, with a focus on how trade and investment shape the Australian business environment.