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Australians are working from home much more because of the pandemic – and it sucks

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Wavebreakmedia Ltd UC80/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Wavebreakmedia Ltd UC80/Alamy Stock Photo

Working from home is great because it removes the commute, provides you with more time to be with your family and ends distracting chats with colleagues who reduce your productivity. The only problem is it absolutely sucks.

It sucks because it removes the commute and blurs the lines between work and family life, and it ends the ability for you to have fun chats with your colleagues.

If, like me, you are one of the many people in lockdown on the south-east of Australia you will find much that is familiar in the Productivity Commission’s Working from Home report released this week.

Related: The roads less travelled: how the pandemic lured Australians from the city to the country

Prior to the pandemic around 20% of all businesses had staff working from home; since the pandemic that has increased to 44%. The commission argues it is unlikely that we will return to pre-pandemic levels.

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So get used to longer days.

One study cited in the report found that the length of the average workday increased by around 8%, or almost 49 minutes, relative to pre-pandemic levels.

This highlights that for any benefits of working from home there are many negatives.

The most common way many will have come across the report is from a slightly clickbait tweet by the ABC asking “Would you take a pay cut to keep working from home?”.

If, like everyone who replied to the tweet, you are shouting some version of “Oh hell, no!”, just know even the Productivity Commission agrees with you.

Rather than suggest we would take a pay cut, the report merely noted that “experimental data” from the US suggests that this might be the case. But the commission concluded rather dismissively that “the valuations expressed in surveys do not always translate into real world behaviour” and that “nominal wage reductions are uncommon”.

As such, it doubted “whether a negotiated pay reduction would be a realistic outcome”.

Of course, there are “some” people who would choose a job that pays less if it allowed them to work from home, but the report concluded “this is unlikely to be widespread”. And given working from home will in time increase productivity, the commission suggested the wages “of those working from home are likely to improve”.

The report looked at how working from home affects an array of aspects, from productivity to congestion, workplace health and safety, and worker’s wellbeing.

What it found were a lot of plusses and minuses.

It notes for example that less interruption from colleagues increases productivity, but also that working from home reduces productivity due to distractions or a lack of a suitable working space, and that because you engage in less socialising with colleagues you suffer “increased isolation”.

As I am sure most of you currently in lockdown can attest, working from home also causes a “blurring of lines between home and work, leading to extra hours of work and inability to ‘switch off’.”

Of course, in reality the majority of jobs cannot be done from home. For the most part we are talking about managers, professional and clerical workers.

The report notes that even if everyone who could work from home one or two days a week actually did so, that would still mean only 13% of all hours worked in Australia would be done remotely.

But that does not mean we should ignore the risks to workers.

Related: ‘None of this is normal or sustainable’: the impossibility of working from home without childcare in lockdown

So long as businesses continue to favour working from home as a means of saving costs the concern will be that it becomes more of a forced situation than a negotiated one.

With working from home comes questions of who pays – occupational health and safety laws don’t end just because an employee works from home, and businesses will still be responsible for some equipment.

While pay may not diminish, there will likely be a fall in opportunities for advancement, work conditions, and worker wellbeing. And all the while you could be expected to work longer and always be on call.

As such the commission concludes that “it will be important for firms, employees and governments to monitor these issues, particularly if working from home continues to grow”.

Expect working from home to become a much greater element of the industrial relations debate from now on.

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