Madonna King: Many essential workers left out of work-from-home debate

We all know someone who knows someone who fleeced an employer while permitted to work from home.

Creative hacks, from ‘working’ at the beach office to placing the computer mouse on a mobile robot cleaner to outwit the employer’s AI detection system have become stories for dinner party laughs.

But it’s probably also the behaviour behind Jeff Kennett’s ill-conceived idea to cut the pay of those who continue to work remotely.

Such is the division on this issue that a television poll on the former Victorian premier’s idea garnered 30,000 votes, with close to half actually backing the idea.

It won’t work, is unfair on so many levels, and is a direct route to workers pitting themselves against each other.

But what it shows is the glaring need for an intelligent conversation that values the flexibility around working from home, with the enormous benefits it offers those lucky enough to do it.

The big problem here is that some workers will never be able to work in their pyjamas around the breakfast table.

And many of those are in the trades and professions that turn our economy.

Just consider the entire medical industry – doctors, nurses, allied health professionals. Telehealth might have worked for a while, but it’s not a substitute for any in-person examination.

What about construction? It is impossible to do the renovation on my place from a tradie’s place of residence.

Police officers and bar attendants, teachers and event managers, school-zone-crossing supervisors and car-park attendants, national parks officers and those fronting our retail outlets.

The list is enormous, and none of those have the option to work from home.

WFH? It’s not a right

Other workers, particularly those with office jobs in both the public and private sectors, have used the work-from-home COVID rule as an ongoing right.

It shouldn’t be classed as such, and employers are entitled to argue that a temporary pandemic-inspired rule should not continue indefinitely, as a blanket rule.

The nuances are enormous.

Studies have shown that working from the home office can be the impetus for a productivity boost, and workers who have enjoyed that should now at least have the right to argue that it continue.

As the Finance Sector Union (FSU), which is taking on the Commonwealth Bank in the Fair Work Commission, points out, COVID proved remote work was “a sustainable model”.

But it also proved more than that. It gave families time around the dinner table, reduced commuter travel, created a sense of neighbourhood, and even increased the level of exercise, in many cases.

None of that should be dismissed, and the legacy of a pandemic that stole too many lives should focus on the silver linings it delivered.

Embracing the grey

The problem, like most issues that now dominate our public life, is that everything is seen through a black-and-white prism, with few daring to be brave enough to embrace the grey.

And the solution, like commonsense, should fall somewhere in the middle.

The Commonwealth Bank, like other employers, is demanding workers return to the office for a fixed period each week, arguing that “connection, innovation and the ability to build and strengthen relationships’’ is a key part of any workplace. That makes sense.

Younger workers, too, surely benefit from the incidental learnings that happen around more experienced workers; few of us reach middle-age without genuinely valuing the role played by others who advocated on our behalf.

The FSU rightly raises the cost associated with commutes and childcare, and the fact that workers should have a seat at the decision-making table in its dispute with the bank.

And it is that last point that is difficult to climb over.

Going back to pre-COVID work routines will not work without the support of those at the centre of the decision. An arbitrary call by employers will not work.

But likewise, those advocating working from home have to recognise – and value – the vast bag of benefits it delivers.

And both sides need to stop and consider that huge swag of workers – who collect their rubbish, teach their children and diagnose their illnesses – whose work rights sit outside this whole debate.

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