The coronavirus pandemic has seen millions of people around Australia and the globe shift to a work-from-home model, some for the very first time.
With the Australia Institute Centre for Future Work (AICFW) estimating 30 per cent of all Australian jobs slated to be able to be performed from home, there will be no denying that working from home will become a ‘new normal’ among offices everywhere.
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But according to a new paper by AICFW, this shift is actually bad news, and in fact actually exacerbates already-existing income divides.
“The impact of this shock to the labour market will be experienced very unevenly,” wrote economists Jim Stanford and Alison Pennington.
Those who can continue to work from home are already well-placed to get through the coronavirus crisis, they wrote: they can keep earning their income while being shielded from the health risks of coming into contact with other people.
“In contrast, those who continue working outside their homes, despite the lockdown, must confront frightening health risks: most acute for health care workers, of course, but also for many other, often low-wage occupations (like retail clerks, drivers, and cleaners).”
There are a few issues that come along with having some operating on a work-from-home model while simply can’t, according to the economists.
Only some jobs can be done from home
According to the Centre for Future Work estimations, those who work primarily off their laptops have a significant capacity to work from anywhere.
More than half of managers, professionals, admin and clerical workers can do their job from home, and some sales workers and a smaller percentage of IT workers are also able to work from home.
But it means lower-paid workers such as labourers, drivers, machine operators and hospitality workers won’t be able to.
Jobs that can be done from home earn more already
A work-from-home legacy left by the coronavirus will see the income divide grow even wider, Stanford and Pennington said: more flexible workers were likely on a higher salary to begin with.
The median weekly earnings of an Australian are $1,329 – and managers and professionals already take home more than that, at nearly $2,000 per week, while hospitality workers and labourers tend to earn less than average.
According to analysis by CFFW, the average weekly wages for those who can work from home are at $1,560, which is about 124 per cent more than those who can’t, who will earn $1,259 a week.
“This 24 per cent earnings gap between those who can work at home, and those who can’t, creates a compounded inequality as the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold,” the economists said.
“For the most part, the occupations which can more easily relocate to home work – and thus are more likely to continue working, rather than facing either stand-down or unemployment – generated higher incomes in the first place.
“Other occupations, in contrast, are less location-flexible, and hence more likely to be experiencing unemployment and/or reductions in hours of work. And since they were less well-paid in the first place, those workers now have fewer personal resources to fall back on.”
Employers could act unfairly
With nearly all office workplaces adjusting to remote work, there will be some employers that will be fairer than others that may try to take advantage of the insecure jobs market.
“In a climate of mass unemployment and pervasive insecurity, home work could become a ‘baptism by fire:’ whereby workers are compelled to ‘prove themselves’ more energetically than ever to their employers, in hopes of protecting their jobs in the turbulent months ahead,” the economists wrote.
“Some employers will take advantage of this sense of insecurity to intensify work and tighten discipline.” This could end up exacerbating mental health issues among some workers that may have already been present before the pandemic, which will again be compounded by the stress of adjusting to remote work.
There are certain workers’ rights that need to be protected during this time, including:
The business costs of working from home, including up-front costs like home offices, or data, utilities and printing charges;
Space, safety and ergonomics considerations (not everyone lives in a home that can feasibly have a home office or an environment that guarantees a peaceful and productive environment);
Working hours and availability (such as the blurring of work and home, and assuming workers are always ‘on’);
Monitoring and surveillance concerns, such as software used to track workers’ productivity or even software that can send webcam pictures to managers throughout the day; and
Managing work/life balance, particularly work duties and caregiver responsibilities.
Most Australians can’t work from home at all – but of those who can, protections need to be put in place, according to the paper.
“It is crucial that we do home work ‘right,’” the economists said.
“For workers who can work from home, sensible support and precautions must be taken to ensure that the work they continue to do is safe and appropriate, and that they are provided with generous personal and logistical support to do their jobs – despite the stress and disruptions caused by the pandemic.
“This will require employers to adopt an enlightened, supportive approach to home work arrangements: facilitating whatever work can be done, encouraging workers to do their best, but without a disciplinarian approach to the matter, and respecting the privacy and dignity of workers even as they do their duties from their own homes.”
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