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Hybrid power: where future employees will choose to work

No one is surprised to learn that the percentage of people working from home in Australia has leapt from 8% to 40% over the past two years.

That statistic, from the Australian Productivity Commission’s recent Working From Home report, along with research from PwC Australia that found three-quarters of Australians want a hybrid of home and office work arrangements post-pandemic, are strong indicators that how and where we work are going through a period of unprecedented change.

Michael Brennan, the chair of the Productivity Commission, believes things won’t go back to the way they were pre-pandemic. “The mindset has shifted a bit from two years ago because we know a lot more about what’s possible now,” he says. “It’s interesting to note, though, that the level of work from home had not changed much until the pandemic, so the pandemic really forced an experiment.”

Anders Sörman-Nilsson, a global futurist and the founder of strategy think tank Thinque, agrees that people will prioritise physical and digital interactions in different ways from now on.

Two years ago, for a Sydney worker, a meeting in Melbourne meant two flights and a long day. Now it’s far more likely to be a Zoom call. And it might be very much the same with even leaving home to go to the city.

“I think we’re going to become really discerning about when we want to meet people, so the default position is not going to be that you have to be in the office every day – I think the default position is now you work from home,” Sörman-Nilsson explains.

“You’re not going to go and waste your time just sitting in a cubicle at work unless you really can’t work from home. You may only need to go into the office if there’s an important meeting or you’re having a brainstorming or team-building session.

“I think there’ll be a greater appreciation of when we invest in what I call ‘analog energy’ into a physical meeting – people are going to cherish that, and that’s when it’s not going to be the default.”

Hybrid working as ‘the new normal’

Anne Bardoel, a professor of human resource management at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, says a hybrid model where employees split their time between working remotely and working in the office will become the new normal.

“Since 2020, two-thirds of working Australians have experienced a change to their employment due to the impact of COVID-19,” she says. “We conducted a survey at Swinburne, and basically 60% of people are reporting they expect to work from home for at least one to five days a week in the future.

“I think the critical thing is that since COVID-19 has occurred, the way employees think about flexible work arrangements has irreversibly changed.”

Brennan also predicts a permanent shift to a hybrid model. “For many, it’s not so much about whether a job can be done from home, it’s whether specific tasks can be done from home,” he says.

“And of course, over time, what might happen is that we may get better at segmenting the tasks that comprise our jobs, such that we can separate those that can be done remotely and those that can’t. Most jobs are actually hybrids of those two things, which is why many businesses are naturally attracted to the hybrid model.

“We estimate on the basis of occupational attributes, there are around 35% of jobs in the Australian economy that can be done from home, so we can sketch out a fairly plausible but conservative scenario that if half of the people who could work from home did so two days a week, what we would see is around 7% of the hours worked in the Australian economy being done from home.

“That would seem like a pretty modest change, but it’s actually quite a large shift because that would be a more than 300% increase in the amount of work from home. It would amount to nearly one in five Australian workers working from home some of the time.”

The case for mini-hubs

The concept of ‘mini-hubs’, where a central office is supplemented by satellite offices in the local areas of employees, is also a possibility moving forward, says Brennan. It’s too early, however, to tell if this idea will take off or if there should be government funding for it.

“There are those who may be in favour of something like dispersed hubs,” Brennan says. “But there would be an alternative view that if you’re in the hybrid model, then maybe you’re quite happy to use the CBD if you’re in a major city and you might even tolerate a slightly longer commute to do it because you’re doing it less often.

“It’s really difficult to say with certainty whether jobs will concentrate in the CBD more or whether they will push out towards suburban hubs. For that reason, I’d be a bit wary of too much public investment that was premised on a particular view of that. I think it’d be better to see what emerges over time.”

Brennan admits that it’s difficult to determine if these changes will have a major impact on employee productivity. “There’s probably enough evidence to suggest that quite a number of workers, if they’re working from home, can be as productive for those hours of work as they are in the office,” he says.

“It’s more likely that those people who are going to work from home more are the ones who do it relatively well rather than those who do it relatively badly,” he says.

Still, Bardoel says, it’s important to acknowledge both the pros and cons of working from home.

“With the survey we conducted, the benefits people highlighted were that there’s no commute, greater flexibility, financial savings, more time with family and friends and increased productivity,” she says. “But there are also people who identified challenges – one of the most dominant things was the boundary between work and home was blurred, and there’s been an increase in loneliness, particularly among single people.

“I think it’s important we don’t lose sight of these challenges while still acknowledging the positives.”

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