The Stats Guy: From ‘fried egg’ to ‘scrambled egg’, this is how COVID reshaped our cities

The working from home trend has transformed our cities, Simon Kuestenmacher explains.

The working from home trend has transformed our cities, Simon Kuestenmacher explains. Photo: TND

How do you like your eggs? I’m a fried egg sort of guy, my kid loves them scrambled, my wife eats them poached.

Hang on, this isn’t a column about breakfast or even eggs. I’m the Stats Guy, so the old how-you-eat-your-eggs debate has much deeper meaning to me. This is about how Australia’s large cities are changing.

During the pandemic, we took a spatula to what I call our fried egg cities and turned them into scrambled egg cities.

Stay with me on this. Before the pandemic, our capital cities resembled a fried egg. The juicy, fatty, delicious jobs were clustered in the city centre – in the egg yolk.

Workers commuted to the yolk in the morning and did the same tedious drive home at night. Our cities were gridlocked – traffic, traffic, and more traffic. What a nightmare.

A chart showing how working from home has changed our cities
We know from happiness research (yep, that’s a thing) that commuting by car is the activity that makes us most unhappy in life. Makes complete sense to me. If each morning, I sit in a car that can go 200 kilometres per hour but am stuck in a huge queue of cars going about 12 kilometres per hour, the disconnect between what is possible and my actual experience will slowly drive me mad (no pun intended).

Australians, inventive types as we are, tried to be happier by minimising that dreaded commute. We simply wanted more time with partners, kids, and dogs. If we could, we forked out big bucks to live closer to town. That drove up house prices near the city centre – and became another thing that made many unhappy. If we couldn’t afford to live close by, we had to put up with the daily nightmare of a long commute to the yolk.

The social divide increased. Well-paid, highly skilled workers had relatively short commutes to the city centre while the low-skilled and poorly paid maintenance workers, cleaners and hospitality staff were segregated from the rich and lived further away.

In the end, no one was happy. Problem was we had no idea how to fix it. You had to get to work somehow … You had to spend so much money on that expensive house…

Well, one group was happy – employers. They loved having workers clustered in the egg yolk of the central business district. As Australia shifted from an economy heavily reliant on manufacturing to a knowledge economy, more jobs were created that benefitted from close proximity to other jobs. You get the drift.  An accounting firm likes to be close to customers, close to IT firms and banks – and vice versa.

Our urban planners have long had other ideas. They wanted what they call secondary employment hubs in suburbia. Clunky name but their dream was good: to spread job growth more evenly. If they could do that, fewer people would endure that long commute or be stuck paying off that oh-so-expensive house. Planners also invented the term ’20-minute city’ to describe the more even spread of functions and population across the urban canvas. But that never got off the ground and the action remained largely clustered around the yolk.

Then COVID came along and took a spatula to our fried egg city model. It stirred things up, scrambled things – and then scrambled a bit more.

Before the pandemic, under five per cent of people worked from home. Employers didn’t really trust their staff to work remotely. They preferred their people to be in the city centre near everything that a city had to offer. That was what they’d always done. It had worked for decades, so why change? Never mind what employees would prefer.

During the pandemic we suddenly worked home and found that it was pretty good. No, it was really good. We could pat the dog while on a zoom meeting, work in our tracksuits without brushing our hair and do a load of washing while waiting for that Amazon parcel. Employers had no choice. They were forced to trust their staff to work remotely. At the height of the lockdowns, around 40 to 50 per cent of the Australian workforce worked from home.

Most workers prefer the scrambled egg city. No more commute, work on your own terms, sleeping in and spending more time with the kids. What’s not to like? Once a privilege has been given, it’s hard to take it back.

Many employers still want their staff back in the CBD office, but I think these companies haven’t fully grasped the consequences of the new scrambled egg city.

Pretty soon they will have no choice. Australia is nearing full employment and skilled workers are already hard to find. Employers can’t force staff back into the office, they must ensure that time in the office is spent on tasks that can’t be done just as good from home. Workers will need serious convincing. That shocking commute must be worth the angst.

No point in travelling all the way to the office to write emails with noise cancelling headphones on. Office days must be dedicated to creative, collaborative, interpersonal work. In a scrambled egg city, employers will have to take the spatula to something else – the old office. It must be reimagined. Radically so.

Let’s think about it. The new office needs to be better than working from home – at least for two or three days per week. Phone calls, emails, writing, quiet thinking, paperwork will be done from home. We go to the office to come up with great ideas, to collaborate, to exchange news with our colleagues. Instead of sterile open-space offices, why not focus on meeting spaces, shared desks, even allow for time in cafes where we can meet with clients and former colleagues over a flat white or even a plate of eggs?

In a scrambled egg city, the yolk must reinvent itself so that workers want to make the office a part of their lives. I hope employers get cracking on these changes soon. Once they do, I’d love to join you for a coffee in the egg yolk.

Demographer Simon Kuestenmacher is a co-founder of The Demographics Group. His columns, media commentary and public speaking focus on current socio-demographic trends and how these impact Australia. Follow Simon on Twitter or LinkedIn for daily data insights.

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