Woman working in home office
The pros and cons of employees working from home are weighed up in a Fair Work discussion paper. Image by David Mariuz/AAP PHOTOS
  • employment

Working from home under spotlight as flexibility fades

February 22, 2024

Employee rights to work from home will come under the microscope as a shift into a post-pandemic world chips away at flexible job arrangements.

At the request of Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke, the Fair Work Commission in September began a review of the modern award, which sets out terms and conditions of employment for about two million Australians.

As part of a broader review of ways workplaces can help employees balance work and care requirements, it will examine whether the award should include a right for Australians to work from home.

After the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic forced Australians indoors, as many as 40 per cent reported they still regularly worked from home in 2022.

However, some large corporations have begun cooling on the practice.

Tony Burke
 Tony Burke says it should not be “an automatic thing” for employees to work from home. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS 

In 2023, Commonwealth Bank ordered its employees to work from the office for at least 50 per cent of their working time while Westpac and National Australia Bank requested workers return to workplaces for two to three days per week.

But a Fair Work Commission discussion paper acknowledges a variety of benefits of working from home such as the expansion of employment opportunities, a reduction in time spent commuting and – in the case of a hybrid work model where employees work at home for two or three days a week – no reduction in productivity.

Mr Burke says the purpose of the industrial umpire’s investigation is to find barriers in the award system that prevent flexible work in instances where it suits employers and employees.

“You can have situations sometimes where for rostering rules or whatever the rules might be, that apply to a particular award, you can end up with circumstances where the flexibility that employees and employers want might not be there,” he told Sky News on Thursday.

Asked if employees should have the right to work from home, the minister said it should not be “an automatic thing” and “doesn’t work in a whole lot of work situations”.

“There’s situations where it’s mutual benefit for the employer and the employee,” he said.

“Where you’ve got those common interests, then of course you should do it.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said there were many benefits to working from home and the commission was looking for “win-wins”. 

“We shouldn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to it, what we need is flexibility, a bit of common sense, and to look for measures that help workers but also help employees,” he told reporters in Sydney. 

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton claimed attempts to enshrine the right to work from home showed the government was “presiding over a wishlist of the union movement”.

City workers
 Big companies have been encouraging people to work more in the office since the end of the pandemic. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS 

“Flexibility is fine for workers and we encourage that,” he told 2GB radio on Thursday.

“(But) the government has all sorts of problems when they’re putting the union bosses ahead of workers.”

A report from economic think-tank the Committee of Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) showed the remote working revolution has benefited workers with disabilities and mothers with young children.

The two groups have been recruited in greater numbers than other workers in occupations that underwent large transitions to remote work since 2020, the research released on Thursday found.

Carers and people with impactful health conditions have also greatly benefited from the changes induced by the pandemic and a strong labour market.

The analysis shows the groups, which typically had higher work-for-home rates, are now virtually level with the rest of the workforce in those select occupations.

“WFH has levelled the playing field,” the report said.

But that did not mean it would remain.

“Embedding these gains even when the jobs market inevitably softens should be a priority,” CEDA chief economist Cassandra Winzar said.