What’s the post-Covid future for working from home and OHS?

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Sunday, 22 May, 2022 - 12:00
Industry news
National News

The mass adoption of working from home over the past two years has had significant and diverse economic and social impacts upon organisations, which have often struggled with a new range of OHS challenges in the process, according to a recent report.

One of the challenges for both large organisations and SMEs included ensuring home offices are safe workspaces.

Some organisations requested home workers fill in a compliance checklist and/or provide a photograph of the home workspace, or undertake an ergonomic assessment as well, according to the Prospects for Working from Home: Assessing the Evidence report, which is an iMOVE Cooperative Research Centre meta-analysis of four of the centre’s research projects involving academics from the Universities of Sydney, South Australia, and Western Australia.

The report said the proportion of people working from home increased from about 8 per cent in pre-Covid 2019, to about 40 per cent in 2020 before declining slightly to 38 per cent of the Australian labour force in 2021.

However, a new working from home normal could see between 40-50 per cent of the Australian workforce feasibly work from home some days of the work, according to the report.

Hybrid workers reported a higher level of scheduling autonomy and vigour, but also higher home/work conflict and close monitoring, and higher loneliness than respondents working at the workplace.

The report said this suggests individuals and managers need to be careful to ensure needs for social connection are met whether working from home or the workplace.

While there have been benefits to working from home, there have been costs as well, including reduced training, mentoring and career development opportunities, especially for early-career workers; and reduced collaboration and ideas generation (or cross-pollination).

“Taken together, the above costs may have long-term impacts on productivity growth,” the report said.

Another downside of working from home is the unsustainable disruption to household and family routines, which may have long-run consequences for Australia’s overall level of public health and wellbeing.

“COVID‐19 has brought us all together and the future must be seen as an all of society commitment. The pandemic has hastened existing trends rather than creating new trends,” the report said.

“We have to design the future for wellness, choice, ease, connection and meaning with the new normal focussed on improved connectedness (in contrast to social distancing) and agile development space ensuring greater happiness and wellbeing.”

The report also made seven public policy recommendations for all tiers of government.

It said the Commonwealth Government should consider the suitability of the provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009 to support voluntary agreements relating to the extent and nature of working from home and propose changes where necessary.

Furthermore, the Commonwealth and State and Territory governments should review the feasibility of increasing working from home for ‘office-based’ public servants where this offers real gains in productivity.

Lastly, the report said the Commonwealth Government should assess the economic impacts of the mandatory shift to working from home during the Covid period (2020 and 2021) on Australia’s productivity performance.