Year of living cautiously: return to work normalcy won’t happen soon


The COVID-19 pandemic caused the world of work to experience extraordinary volatility last year. Millions of workers were forced out of offices, up-ending management resistance to working from home and producing real-time evidence that remote work could benefit employers and workers.

Enormous falls in employment at the start of the pandemic were followed by strong rebounds.

After a big drop in hours worked by women compared with men, the trend reversed and men experienced higher falls for months. Young workers remain among the hardest hit, while workers aged 55 and older returned to pre-pandemic employment levels by October.

During the next 12 months, the way work is performed will be affected significantly by the timing and success of coronavirus vaccine rollouts; employers and workers will seek new accommodations over remote work, and businesses and employees will refine COVID-safe practices in workplaces. Meanwhile, industry groups fear the winding down of JobKeeper will cause many companies to hit the wall after March. But at the start of the new year, as impatient human resources managers draft and redraft return to office schedules, the fresh COVID-19 outbreaks in NSW and Victoria and new border closures underline how a return to normalcy is a long way off.

After the upheaval of the past nine months, 2021 is shaping as the Year of Living Cautiously.

Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox says “wary” is a good way to describe how he feels about the next 12 months.

He says “2021 has got volatility written all over it. It’s going to present different problems to 2020 but it’s not necessarily going to be easier, it’s just going to be different. The crisis goes on. NSW has shown that, so it means that both employers and employees are going to need to be, dare I say it, flexible through 2021 because of the different challenges.

“The lessons of 2020 tell us that the blue-collar workforce keeps turning up to work every day and the white-collar workforce is split about one-third at work, one-third at home and one-third in a hybrid arrangement. Businesses expect that trend to continue although there will be more pressure throughout 2021 for people to come back to the office. Not necessarily full time but at least part of the time.”

Illustration: Tom Jellett
Illustration: Tom Jellett

Back in April and May, 46 per cent of Australians who still had work said they were working from home. In Victoria, many white-collar workers have been working remotely since March.

The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work estimates up to two million workers could feasibly work full time from home, including large numbers of man­ag­ers, professionals, adminis­trative and clerical staff whose work is done mainly on a computer or by telephone. The number working from home, it says, eventually could rise to four million, or 30 per cent of the workforce.

“I think there will be a big issue because people working from home, by and large, seem to like it,” centre director Jim Stanford says. “I think there are limitations to it from both the employer’s perspective and the workers’ perspective but the survey results that I’ve seen suggest most people would like to keep working from home, at least some of the time, and I suspect that is going to run into increasing demands from employ­ers that people come back to various normal workplaces.

“From an employers’ perspective, most of them prefer to keep their workers insight, if you like, and they also worry about the impact of working from home on teamwork, information sharing, the creative process, etc.

“So I think this will be an issue that becomes more intense over the next year as more employers are going to want people to come back to their regular workplaces, and more workers are going to want to continue working from home and will cite some of the continuing health issues to justify working from home.”

While WFH has generated much discussion during the pandemic, unions and employers emphasise that remote work is impracticable for significant sections of the labour market.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry acting chief executive Jenny Lambert says many businesses cannot operate in a home-based environment. “Things have to be delivered in real-time by real people working in the workplace,” Lambert says. “There are hundreds of thousands of businesses and millions of employees who are in that situation so we can’t over-estimate that it’s all about working from home.

“Where work has been able to be performed from home, we have also demonstrated that doesn’t always work for employees because of either their home situation or because they really don’t find it useful for them. They prefer to come into work and separate their home from work, whereas other employees have absolutely revelled in working from home and hate the commuting.”

Lambert agrees there has been conversion among some previously sceptical managers about the benefits of working from home, while Stanford quips that “managers discovered the joys of Netflix at lunch and a nap in the afternoon”.

“There was a lot of speculation that suddenly offices were going to disappear,” he says. “I never believed that. I don’t think most businesses have to work from home as an overall solution. I think we’ll see a steady decline in the proportion of Australians working from home over the next year. Not down to where it was before the pandemic but certainly below where it is now.”

Ai Group’s Innes Willox is wary of what 2021 will bring.
Ai Group’s Innes Willox is wary of what 2021 will bring.
Christian Porter is seeking industrial relations changes. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Gary Ramage,
Christian Porter is seeking industrial relations changes. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Gary Ramage,

Employers and workers know the office environment will be very different when they return.

The attraction of social interaction with colleagues could prove illusory as employers restrict access to shared spaces, confine workers to designated sections of ­offices and, in some cases, roster employees on alternate days. Lifts will be reprogrammed to limit capacity, forcing many large companies to introduce staggered start and finish times to avoid workers having to wait long periods before they can get to their desks.

Employee surveys identify the public transport commute as a cause for concern among returning workers, particularly for those required to cram on to trains and buses during peak ­periods.

Experts predict this year will see the increasing presence of a hybrid working week model where employees work some days each week in the office and some days from home. Willox says management suspicion about the benefits of remote work “may not have evaporated but it has certainly dissipated”.

“White-collar work has become very transactional and structured through Zoom,” he says. “You have got to have that call at 2pm, and another at 2.30pm and another at 3.30pm. There’s no room for people to wander off and get advice and opinions on things. Business is saying there is a greater drive from younger people to get back to the office than they anticipated because young people are missing out on that collaboration and that mentorship.”

Unions will push this year for white-collar employers to adopt a working from the home charter that would see companies paying an upfront allowance to employees working remotely to cover work-related expenses.

Employers also would ensure equipment used by ­employees working from home remotely, under a new ACTU policy that unions will seek to have adopted by white-collar employers.

The charter proposes a body to ensure the “ethical” use of data collected about employees working from home, the ­appointment of union delegates to represent rem­ote workers, and the ability to have disputes over remote work arbitrated.

Unions initially will seek an agreement with employers in heavily unionised workplaces to implement the charter as company policy before pushing to have it incorporated into enterprise agreements when they are renegotiated. The public sector, finance and general clerical, the major banks and other financial institutions are among employers to be targeted.

Unions say working from home should not lead to costs shifting from employers to workers. “The cost of both one-off and recurring expenses that the employer would normally be responsible for on employer-­provided premises should still be the responsibility of the employer when workers are working from home,” it says.

ACTU assistant secretary Scott Connolly is keen to emphasise that for “lots of people, work hasn’t changed”, citing employees in the large sectors of construction, manufacturing, transport and mining as well as those working in customer-facing small businesses.

But he says the acceleration in the number of people working from home risks an increase in work intensification. “There are many workplaces where you would have to be concerned about the sweating of labour being enabled by technology in homes without proper support and proper protections being put in place,” Connolly says.

Willox says employers started discussions six weeks ago with the government about the vaccine rollout. “There are a couple of questions we are working on with the government at the moment,” he says. “In terms of workplaces, who gets it first? If a spouse or relative has been vaccinated, does that mean their spouse needs to get it, and what’s the implication for that spouse’s workplace?

“What are the agreed rules around a compulsion to have the vaccine? What’s the situation when somebody declines to have the vaccine? How does that impact on the employer and other employees? All of that has got to be worked through. It’s early days.”

Council of Small Business Organisations Australia chief executive Peter Strong says employers should have the power to require workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine and be able to stand them down from work without pay if they refuse.

Employment lawyer Michael Byrnes says an employ­er man­dating an employ­ee be vac­ci­nat­ed for COVID-19 will need to jus­ti­fy the direc­tion, and show the vac­ci­na­tion is nec­es­sary for the employ­ee to per­form the inher­ent duties of their posi­tion safely.

“Giv­en how infec­tious COVID-19 is, and its often per­ni­cious impact on those afflict­ed, it is like­ly that a wide range of employ­ers will be able to man­date COVID-19 vac­ci­na­tions for staff, sub­ject to gen­uine medical/health exemp­tions,” he says.

Like direc­tions about masks, social dis­tanc­ing and sanitising, employers could argue vac­cination was an impor­tant mea­sure to create a “COVID-19 safe” workplace, that it would protect staff and workplace visitors from infection. Byrnes says “it is not about employ­ers act­ing as ‘role mod­els’, ‘good cor­po­rate cit­i­zens’ or under­tak­ing a broad­er com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice”.

“It boils down to an analy­sis of whether the employ­er, hav­ing regard to the nature of its busi­ness and the duties of its employ­ees, is jus­ti­fied, on gen­uine safe­ty grounds, issu­ing and enforc­ing such a direction,” he says. “Ulti­mate­ly, the issue of work­place safe­ty is far more like­ly to be rel­e­vant in deter­min­ing whether an employ­er has a right to man­date COVID-19 vac­ci­na­tion for employ­ees than more eso­teric human rights prin­ci­ples.

“It is unlike­ly argu­ments against an employ­er direc­tion to be vac­ci­nat­ed based on grandiose con­cepts such as the Aus­tralian Con­sti­tu­tion, inter­na­tion­al con­ven­tions or the Magna Car­ta, which always seems to get a run, will find favour.

“While employ­ers will need to care­ful­ly con­sid­er how employ­ees with med­ical or health issues pre­vent­ing vac­ci­na­tion will be treat­ed, employ­ees who have con­sci­en­tious objec­tions to vac­ci­na­tions or are part of the ‘anti-vax’ move­ment, and who refuse to be vac­ci­nat­ed on that basis alone, might find them­selves choos­ing between their beliefs and con­tin­ued employment.”

Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations Christian Porter cite the JobKeeper scheme and flexible award changes as being integral to Australia’s success in managing the pandemic and limiting the impact, by international standards, on employers and employees.

“No doubt the way many industries think about how they work will change as Australia and the world comes out of the pandemic,” says Porter, who will seek to get industrial relations policy changes passed by parliament this year.

“For some industries that will mean less emphasis on rigid hours in an office, allowing employees to work from home or at alternative locations that allow them to balance family and other demands.

“Of course this won’t apply to all industries. But there is no doubt that the fact that Australia is coming strongly out of the pandemic is largely part of the co-operative effort of employers, employee representatives, industry and government working together with the single focus of keeping people employed as much as possible.”

Willox and Lambert express concern about the scaling down of JobKeeper, and urge the government to extend support to certain industries after March. Lambert says the tourism sector remains on its knees while Willox says JobKeeper style support could be provided to tourism, accommodation and other service industries.

“That’s going to be a difficult issue to work through and will see a lot of businesses fold at that point,” Willox says.

“But we can’t live off JobKeeper forever. No one expects that. It’s got to be targeted.”

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