This project will examine the benefits and drawbacks of working from home (WFH) for different groups in the community and from the perspectives of both employees and employers.
It will identify the impacts of different WFH arrangements on productivity, transport, health and wellbeing. We will develop recommendations for policy and practice that can be used by government and industry to encourage the continuation and greater adoption of different WFH arrangements during and after the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
- Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (DITRCD)
- Transport for NSW
- University of South Australia
WFH, telecommuting and other flexible working arrangements have been used as travel demand management strategies for over two decades now (e.g. Mokhtarian, 1991; Salomon, 1990). The transport benefits of these alternative working arrangements are many, through their impacts on congestion, emissions, energy use, etc.
For example, “small reductions in the number of cars travelling at peak times can lead to big improvements in traffic flow… the NRMA estimates that when traffic on congested roads [in Australian cities] reduces by 5 per cent, traffic speeds increase by 50 per cent” (Kelly and Donegan, 2015). Similarly, in their analysis of the impacts of home-based telecommuting in Chicago, US on travel behaviour and personal vehicle emissions, Shabanpour et al. (2018) find that more flexible working arrangements have the potential to decrease vehicle emissions by roughly 1 per cent.
Despite these benefits, historic uptake of WFH arrangements has been low. In a 2012 study of WFH arrangements across Australia, Deloitte Access Economics (DAE) (2012) found that only 13 – 16 per cent of employees have a formalised arrangement with their employer to work from home on a regular basis, and an additional 18 – 32 per cent have an ad hoc arrangement based on requesting permission from their employer. In terms of actual take-up, DAE (2012) found that only 24 – 33 per cent chose to work from home at least once a week or more.
There are many reasons for low adoption of WFH practices. From the perspective of employees, WFH practices can offer beneficial impacts on physical and mental health and wellbeing through a greater sense of personal autonomy and better work-life balance (Gajendran and Harrison, 2007). However, WFH practices can also lead to greater social isolation; missed professional development and career advancement opportunities from ad hoc interactions with other employees and managers; and increased out-of-pocket expenses on work-related activities (DAE, 2012).
From the perspective of employers, as Mokhtarian (1991) writes, “businesses typically do not establish telecommuting programs just because reducing congestion is good for society, except in response to policies … requiring them to reduce peak-period travel. Rather, companies implement telecommuting when they find it is an answer to human resources problems (recruitment, retention, staffing flexibility and customer service, helping employees cope with domestic demands, productivity); facilities issues (office space, parking); and, sometimes, emergency preparedness/disaster response.”
As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an unprecedented upsurge in the adoption of WFH practices. Employers have had to develop the necessary infrastructure and protocols to support these changes; employees have had to adapt their work practices to manage these changes. Despite these challenges, the pandemic has offered a unique opportunity to test the viability of WFH practices across different jobs and industries, and to assess their economic, social and environmental impacts. Cities across the world have reported significant improvements in air quality due to reduced private car use. In some cases, worker productivity has increased during the pandemic as a direct result of working from home. Many employees report greater overall work and life satisfaction and are eager to continue these practices after the pandemic.
In Australia at the time of writing (December 2020) the number of new cases of infection from the COVID-19 virus has been kept at a sustained level of low numbers, and various state governments have re-opened their borders and are at the early stages of instituting policy and programs to stimulate their economies. There is a danger that some of these unintended positive impacts of the pandemic, due to the adoption of WFH practices, may be lost, as employers seek to return to old employment arrangements and workplace practices. This project will examine the viability of continuing WFH practices in a post-pandemic world, and to identify ways in which both industry and government can support and encourage further adoption.
This research will aim specifically to answer the following three research questions:
- From the perspective of both employees and employers, what are the benefits and drawbacks of WFH arrangements?
- How do these benefits and drawbacks vary as a function of employment characteristics, such as:
a. Nature of job;
b. Employer characteristics, such as firm size and industry sector; and
c. Employee characteristics, such as age, gender and household structure
- What policies and practices can be used to encourage continuation and greater adoption of different WFH arrangements?
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Gajendran, R. S., & Harrison, D. A. (2007). The good, the bad, and the unknown about telecommuting: Meta-analysis of psychological mediators and individual consequences. Journal of applied
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Kelly, J. F., & Donegan, P. (2015). City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them. Melbourne Univ. Publishing.
Mokhtarian, P. L. (1991). Telecommuting and travel: state of the practice, state of the art. Transportation, 18(4), 319-342.
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