The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating many remote working trends which, once the crisis parts, may well become entrenched in the economy.
In Australia, guests on radio and television programs are being interviewed on Skype, national telecommunications carrier Telstra has asked 20,000 of its employees to work remotely from home, and the Boards of most large corporates are meeting on Google Hangouts.
Many workers report they are scared to go into the workplace because of COVID-19 (in the U.S., Forrester says this is 29% of all workers).
Workplace falls out of fashion
One issue could be the difficulty in getting them back on premises on a regular basis when the crisis is over.
Co-working spaces, the boom story of 2019, are deserted, and while this must be hurting the operators this is unlikely to continue post pandemic.
Co-working is just too convenient for the modern workforce. So, the current crisis must surely be a mere hiccup, even though it might send some operators—many of them just property developers with a new plan—to the wall.
Whether Australia’s notoriously fickle internet can handle the sudden load of a largely remote national workforce remains to be seen.
If not, it will expose a critical infrastructure failing which many have been warning about for years. It will also need to be fixed if the trend for remote working—as is expected—gains further momentum from what is happening now.
Remote working champions
Some companies, of course, are well ahead of the curve on this. Car sharing group Car Next Door has an almost completely remote workforce, which plays online games together on Friday instead of going to the pub for a drink.
Not only does this keep overheads down in terms of office costs, but the company says it keeps people happy, productive, and is reducing turnover.
A longer-term view of the Australian came this week from perhaps an unusual source, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA).
The RBA’s head of economic analysis, Alex Heath, delivered the Bank’s view in a speech on “Skills, Technology and the Future of Work” to a conference in Melbourne.
Using data from RBA and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Heath was able to deliver an usually rigorous assessment of trends in the Australian workforce.
For example, she revealed that employment in occupations requiring the highest level of skills had increased from 15% as a share of total employment to over 30% today.
This increase, said Health, has come from an increase in skills demanded in each industry over time, rather than a shift from industries dominated by low skills to those dominated by high skills. So all industries are skilling up as they automate.
Technological change was likely to increase the demand for more highly skilled workers “because their core competencies are more likely to complement the new technology”.
People in these jobs have higher level analytical, cognitive, social management and mathematics skills, which are the main characteristics required in these roles.
“Most of the new job titles that have been created are disproportionately found within higher skilled occupations, while the least new job titles have been created within lower skilled occupations,” Heath said.
Tertiary grads wanted less
The research also shows that a tertiary education leads to better outcomes in terms of remuneration. Research from 2018 showed that tertiary graduates earned around 25% more than Australians who had completed high school.
The cost of full-time tuition in an Australian university is between AUD 6,500 and AUD 11,000 per year, depending on the course. Australia also has a publicly funded loan scheme at very low interest rates.
Heath said that on average, a person with a bachelor’s degree in Australia earns nearly AUD 350,000 more over the course of their working life than someone with a high school qualification.
This might sound attractive and validating for tertiary education, but the percentage of graduates moving into full time work shortly after graduation has fallen by more than 10% since 2008, and now sits at just above 70%.
The uncertainty of gig
The other issue to ponder for Australian workers is the basis for their employment.
Health did not touch on this in her speech. But the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing significant risks for the number of Australians in casual employment or relying on the gig economy.
Casual workers represent around 20% of the Australian workforce, while the number of people in part time work—or doing less than 35 hours per week—has steadily increased.
This might be convenient for workers and create less onboarding costs for employers, but in a crisis such as we face at the moment the implications are significant.
Contrast the way in which a Government employee might be contemplating the economic shut down of the economy to a part time casual worker.
The public servant will be working from home, perhaps on reduced hours, but be guaranteed his or her income.
The ultimate responsibility for casual workers, meanwhile, is still uncertain. The Government has appealed to the patriotism of business to keep paying them, but if businesses go to the wall, what will happen then?
The pandemic aftermath
After the pandemic, the Australian workforce is likely to be more skilled, more casual, and work remotely more than it ever did before.
More people are likely to hold a portfolio of jobs, combining their own small business activities with some other paid employment.
People are ramping up their “side hustles” both because they want to, and because they think they have to.
Once life returns to some normality, however, it is likely that the current disruptions will have long-term impacts on employment in ways which will further transform a key part of life which is where—according to some estimates—we spend one third of our living hours.
Photo credit: iStockphoto/happyphoton