Coronavirus and remote work: Is this the change Australian workforces had to have?

Bushfires, climatic events and coronavirus all have something important in common- they’re finally putting Australian remote work on the table.

As someone who has been a freelancer since 2010 and an advocate for Australian freelancers since 2012, I have been disheartened by the attitudes to remote work in this country. There’s a perception you have to meet someone in person to have a good meeting. Or that you need to be in an office to do great work.

Even if you’re a business progressive enough to value remote work, there is still a weird barrier to employing people outside your home city “just in case”. Or for meetings. This means people living regionally and in often forgotten states (e.g. anything off the mainland or east coast of Australia) have limited options.

Jo Palmer from Pointer Remote Roles and other such innovators are doing a cracking job of breaking those issues down.

But there’s still work to be done in getting Australia ready for remote work. Here’s why

We haven’t been in pain like this before

Change happens mostly when the situation we’re in is deemed too painful than the prospect for facing the unknown. As someone who has been watching crisis after crisis unfold in New South Wales and often helping Australian freelancers articulate their value in a remote work setting, we haven’t appeared to be in enough pain to change.

Until now.

The wheels started falling off the wagon when the bushfire crisis hit. People were cut off. Towns still face the unenviable prospect of rebuilding, even with great campaigns like Buy from the Bush and Turia Pitt’s Spend with Them. We recognised though that we had to get behind the businesses and towns hardest hit.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) is another form of pain.

I was reading an article on SMH this morning where Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy advised we either need to prepare for economic downturn or mass infection. He may seem more radical in his thinking than Australia is currently prepared for.

For example, he believes we should cancel things that encourage large-scale gatherings that are relatively unnecessary (his word) such as the Royal Easter Show.

You may start wincing and forming that cynical eyeroll that often defines our approach to bad news in Australia. But the Irish have just cancelled St Patrick’s Day parades to inhibit transmission.

In a country that was divided by whether or not fireworks should go on at NYE for fear of fires and the potential for poor taste rubbing up against a state’s desperate need to spend $6 million to make $130 million to offset bushfire tourism impacts, we’re already making tough choices.

I guess the question is- how tough are we prepared to be?

Remote work has to get a proper hearing

A lady is sitting behind a laptop with her knees up to signify remote work conditions. She has sunglasses on and is feeling casual.
Photo by Anton Shuvalov on Unsplash

There are a lot of things to think about with coronavirus- or bushfires cutting people off- or climate change for future of work. I am seeing a lot of reactions, but not a whole lot of responsiveness. Are we critically thinking about the situation and where we need to get to? Are we able to do it in the time needed?

Coronavirus and other such impediments to the traditional workplace environment are not all negative.

Potentials we need to consider are:

Is this the moment we need to get businesses and large-scale organisations to move into properly flexible workplaces?

Beyond Blue has been trying to champion mentally healthy workplaces for years. The statistic that struck me on first hearing it in 2017 was that while seven out of ten organisations want to be seen as mentally healthy workplaces, only four out of ten implement policies that create such environments.

A huge part of that is ignoring the benefits of flexible workplaces.

If we need it to better support family needs, mental health support, physical health impacts, commuting and more, there doesn’t appear to be a negative in adopting a policy that suits the needs of self-isolation or allows people to work in a natural disaster if they so choose.

Is Australia mature enough to be able to realise they don’t need to see a person to know they are working? E.g. on the floor and/or surveillance?

Every time I speak to people about our need to get freelance-friendly workplace, invariably someone starts talking about watching people work through a web camera or some form of surveillance technology.

Where’s the trust? Where’s the love? And where’s being smart enough to recognise people don’t turn out their best work when they are being monitored?

The attitude of thinking having someone in a room with you makes for good or bad behaviour is pretty weird.

We need to stop clock watching in Australia and realise it’s not the hours that took to do it, it’s the quality of the outcome that matters. It probably ties back into the attachment we have to people “leading by example” by starting early and working late. We appear to have confused contact hours with having a businesses best interests at heart.

Your workforce won’t trust you if you don’t trust them. Remote work is part of getting your company to grow up and deal with issues appropriately. The culture you have sets the standard. Not the ways in which you watch people work.

Can we face the future and change with it?

As impacts dictate the terms of business now and in the future, we have to recognise that there are some industries we prop up that maybe we shouldn’t. We have to face facts and look towards innovation.

In Australia, freelancers are doing it for themselves with little to no support mechanisms. We’re often ineligible for the grants that are offered to start-ups and small business. We have minimal to no representation in the political game. We’re often erroneously viewed as gig sector employees who are doing the unwanted low pay jobs others leave behind.

The 2019 State of Australian Freelancing survey found we’re often more likely to be professional people, predominately women, who have been squeezed out of work by parenting needs, changing cities, following military partners, disability, mental health, a desire for travel, or a desire to innovate more than what traditional work allows us to do. We’re not young, fresh-faced people or people who cannot get employed. We have spirit and drive and a passion for work that goes beyond putting one foot in front of the other.

But we’re neglected.

Like many of the industries that challenge the old ways of thinking or the established ideas of what work is meant to look like, we find ourselves being asked to do a lot with very little. Resource and respect wise, that takes a toll.

There’s a limit to the remote work solution, too

Of course, I am supportive of remote work. It’s what I do. But I am not naïve enough to think it’s the whole box and dice.

There are definite issues tied to remote work as a future in Australia-

Not all jobs can be done remotely. How do we help keep people safe and their families safe?

We can see through where the cases are being identified that air travel, healthcare and education all pose risks for example. You can pull a lot of learning into digital frameworks as many a university is now doing to not miss out on International student fees. But there is also the need for practical work, for lab work and other elements that require hands on work experience and learning.

People still need to travel for work, play and all the rest. How we keep people safe in mass transport environments matters.

The education itself may not present a massive problem, but what about logistics? Or socialisation? Parents need to work, so having kids with them 247 isn’t a long-term solution. Having all kids couped up indefinitely isn’t necessarily going to help social skills.

How do people work if their childcare and schooling options are cancelled ala Madrid in Spain? Freelance or not, this is huge because it means it becomes an individual consideration. If you can’t have a child go safely to school, a worried parent is hardly going to send them elsewhere other than home.

We can use telehealth for medical sessions and mental health sessions, but there still needs to be physical contact for treatment. Plus again, a push for telehealth services by mental health and health practitioners hasn’t gained the traction needed to support our population. Here again is that lost opportunity to innovate.

Plus, someone still needs to pick the ripe apple, load the empty truck, unpack the truck, deliver the online groceries and more. We might be able to automate certain aspects and throw in some driverless cars for good measure, but we still have blocks.

We may be able to move aspects of life online, but our reticence hasn’t left us in the best position to be able to activate them now.

If the majority of us start working and studying from home, will the NBN be able to cater for enough people in adequate ways?

As someone that has had many a discussion with freelancers about the NBN’s capability (or lack thereof) to support remote work properly, I have my doubts.

People with large file transfers struggle. People on digital calls will often find the more attendees added, the worse it gets. There are legitimate blackspots in suburban and city locations, let alone regionally or remote. People have to research the style of connection they have, move around providers who favour big contracts over small, and routinely need to head to libraries and other areas to do basic work.

Our NBN has long been a problem and so too have the attitudes some politicians display towards the NBN in general. That won’t change with a need for remote work. Adding volume through multiple people in a house studying and working, together with every house being in the same boat, seems like an awful lot of strain for an NBN flat out trying to work in far more casual and less critical usage patterns.

Do you know enough about remote work for it to work?

We are seeing some great innovation and fast moves in light of the coronavirus issues. The university sector is moving heaven and earth not to lose international students. People are scrambling to make their workforce remote.

Already remote workers and freelancers are relatively OK because we’re all set up and often preferring to work from home. But there’s a mad scramble to get as much as you can online happening right now. There are businesses that never ever entertained remote work cobbling ideas together.

Their panic will leak through into the solutions they create. So, how do we stop it from becoming hodge podge, rushed and marred by surveillance and rushed solutions?

It’s not as simple as hooking someone up to the internet or finding someone on an eBidding website to do the job. If you are changing your entire working way, you need to think about what you need to do to be freelance-friendly and ready to support the best remote work.

As I mentioned before, that doesn’t come from watching our every move or treating us like your last resort. You have to know how to integrate freelancers into your team. And how to make your remote workers shine and stay focused if they haven’t experienced it before.

You have to be smart enough to support good outcomes.

You should be asking freelancers to lead the way to how this can and does get done.

What fills the gaps for things that definitely face an impact?

We also have to face that no matter what industry we’re in, our industry can and often does take a knock when other industries falter.

Tourism- domestic and international, airlines and other forms of mass transport, festival circuits, arts sector re: reliance on gathering crowds everywhere from galleries to theatre, cafes and restaurants, the already ailing beverage industry, and so on will all have a direct hit.

Once money starts drying up, so too will budgets. Along with them, new roles, part time work, casualised working positions, freelancer budgets, supporting roles, start-up funding and so on.

Small businesses, start-ups and departments will shrink and/or fail. We may see a reluctance for people to train in medicine, aged care and related high contact and high-risk fields in the medium term.

A lot of businesses have the potential to lose out through secondary and tertiary impacts.

And as many have said, a Rudd-like stimulus package is unlikely to give the boost needed. What then?

It’s a big problem – and we have to be intelligent about

I know you were looking for potential solutions. It does come down to leveraging freelance mobility, turning to remote work and proving that we can work in a way we don’t often talk about in Australia.

We also need to stop being quite so risk adverse and start innovating. As well as resisting the temptation to jump in with quick fixes, because that rarely works.

And I guess we also convince them that this too shall pass, so there’s no point in cancelling everything and work will still need to be done- eventually. That means maybe doing the evergreen parts of a festival’s planning, plotting a course for expansion or whatever to have it ready.

Plus, this is a massive opportunity for us lessons about contingency planning. We have to drop the superstitious attitudes we have towards social media crisis through to bushfire preparedness and stop sticking our heads in the sand. We have to plan in the hope we don’t need the plan, but safer due to the knowledge we do.

However, I think we face an even bigger issue than getting through this year with viruses and natural disasters.

The issue we will face is Australia bucked up, created movements and grew up a lot during the GFC only to backslide into old habits the minute things didn’t require so much innovation.

We started to show ourselves we could break a few taboos and get away from old ideas that no longer served us, only to go right back to being complacent.

We need to think about crisis and change in terms of:

  1. a) How do we deal with the now?
  2. b) How do we prevent being quite so vulnerable in future?
  3. c) How do we normalise the change to make it sustainable?

That in itself is a massive challenge. One that goes well beyond remote work into how we think, the attitudes we hold onto, and how open to change we are.

Want to try and figure out where to next? Check out my freelance-friendly culture offering and let’s set up a (digital) meeting and see.

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