What should happen after The Great Work From Home Experiment concludes?

What should happen after The Great Work From Home Experiment concludes?
Alastair TaylorJune 3, 2020

The COVID19 pandemic has changed a lot.

Politicians are listening to experts - in the health sector, at least - and a great number of people are working from home, participating in a giant experiment that will have consequences in the residential, commercial and equally important transport spaces.

Any job that doesn't require a specific workplace (such as a retail premise, construction site or a laboratory for instance) or is not a job in the frontline/emergency and health services sector has been conducted in the employee's home.

Employers big and small are getting real-time data on the effect of working from home on their employee's productivity and vast numbers of employees are working from home for the first time, gauging whether it suits them or not.

Anecdotes started trickling through various media in April and have since turned into a steady stream of organisations - and employees - calling for a permanent change to how we work and where we work after the immediate danger of the pandemic has passed.

From jobs such as traditionally office-based contact centres at one end of the spectrum to lawyers and consultants at the other end, it seems pretty clear through reporting that change is coming.

Flexibility is always welcome...

...yet not everyone will want to continue to work from home after COVID19.  To use my own anecdote that might be shared with other members of the community, prior to the pandemic, I was lucky enough to experience 100% work from office, 100% work from home.  I've also worked under a regime where - with varying layers of flexibility - I'd be split between two places during the week.  For instance 2 days a week at home, 3 days a week in an office - over a period of 15 years.

I've always favoured flexibility to isolate myself when I need to devise solutions (when I was business analyst) or use the creative side of my brain (when writing articles) because distractions - in the form of other human beings or incessant digital communication requests - don't help with my own productivity. 

Yet I could never see myself enjoying a permanent work from home experience in a medium or large-scale organisation because the casual interactions which tend to err on the side of distraction when you are accomplishing tasks that require focus - as mentioned previously - can also be beneficial in certain contexts like when you need to brainstorm ideas or decide upon weekly/monthly goal setting. 

I could also not see myself remaining interested enough in an organisation if I was forced to interact with colleagues 100% of the time over impersonal digital communications platforms.

Orthodoxy, be damned

Getting employees to their place of employment is one of the major tasks of our transport network - this is everything from those who walk or cycle to work, catch public transport or drive to their place of employment.

And in a post-COVID19 world, if the steady stream of anecdotes published throughout the media do come to fruition - that a greater number of people will be working from home, either permanently of with varying levels of flexibility - then we have an opportunity to permanently change the way we think of peak hour and the lived experience of it.

For every person who works from home, either permanently or on a flexibility arrangement, that's one less trip the transport network needs to manage.   

Yet if the bulk of people who shift to working from home do it on a set timetable, like Mondays and Fridays, the peaks would become more intense on the other working days in the week. 

The ideal scenario would be that employers rotate rosters of people who work on a flexible arrangement so that we get across the board reduction in people traveling in peak on every weekday - journeys will be more pleasant with the same level of peak services.

There's also an argument to be made the concept of a weekend or Saturday/Sunday timetable needs to be ditched or dramatically altered.  If we get the working week right - through the reduction in trips by car and public transport - squeezing more out of what we already have - then we can't have everyone take to their cars on weekends, clogging the transport network up again.

Is it time to re-think long-distance inter-city commuting?

Taking the logic of continuing to work 1 or 2 days a week in a Melbourne office or any other state capital and the remaining 3 to 4 days an employee would work from home, it follows that the employee wouldn't necessarily need to live within metropolitan Melbourne.

Since the Regional Fast Rail projects of the 2000-2010 decade came online, patronage on Vline services has grown markedly.  Excluding the astronomical growth on the Geelong long that can be attributed to outer suburban patronage growth in places like Tarneit, more people are traveling from the regional cities and towns that surround Melbourne.

Where once I would have seen the logic in planning orthodoxy that resisted inter-city commuting, and facility far more of it, when it occurs less frequently, but with more people, the argument that the regional cities will become dormitory towns for the big smoke becomes a lot harder to justify.

For the regional towns and cities, it's an opportunity to create shared workplaces which in turn will create agglomeration benefits in those towns and cities much like central Melbourne (or any other state capital) sees with all the ancillary businesses that serve office workers.  It, naturally, also benefits them from growing their respective populations which in turn would create more local jobs there as well.

For businesses with centralised offices whether it's in the CBD or a suburban node they can diversify the space they own or lease. 

Sure, you can be a cynic and point out the bean-counters in organisations will likely push for a reduction in office space if a large number of a business' employees start working remotely to save on outlays, but there'd also be an argument those workplaces could evolve and adapt to tasks they'll need to facilitate when the remote employees are on. their weekly jaunt in the office.

For capital cities, it means the pressure on housing sectors mightn't be as great with regional cities shouldering a much higher portion of the population burden.

For Victoria and to an extent New South Wales but not realistically any other state, this would mean the transport focus should shift to increasing capacity for regional services (which is a focus in Victoria and belatedly now in NSW) and connecting nodes in metropolitan areas so journeys can be facilitated by public transport rather than existing road networks.

That's one logic path - there may be others, however everyone should prepare for orthodoxy to be challenged in a post-COVID19 world.

Lead image credit: wikipedia.

Alastair Taylor

Alastair Taylor is a co-founder of Urban.com.au. Now a freelance writer, Alastair focuses on the intersection of public transport, public policy and related impacts on medium and high-density development.

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