News

With Covid-19 forcing so many employees to work from home, permanent changes – both in function and monitoring – are expected in the ways we do business. By Royce Kurmelovs.

The new world of desk-bound work

The first thing Daniel Huppatz did at the start of this pandemic was buy a cheap desk from Ikea to set up a makeshift office in the corner of his bedroom. He, like his wife, and their two teenage children, joined the millions of others who retreated from schools and workplaces around the world.

“It’s one room each at the moment,” Huppatz says. “So, it is good, and it’s bad.”

As someone who studies the history of the office, watching what might be epochal change play out in his own home represents a certain irony for Huppatz, an associate professor of architectural and industrial design at Swinburne University.

“I think [this moment] probably will be some kind of turning point in how we work. It’s just not clear which way it is turning,” he says. “But, in the short term, the physical distancing is going to have a big impact on the way people work.

“If this goes on, there needs to be an enormous amount of retrofitting in workplaces, and in public spaces, that were not designed with it in mind.”

The office as a dedicated space that separates “productive” activity from domestic life has been the subject of books, such as Gideon Haigh’s The Office and Nikil Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, and countless fluorescently lit television shows.

But the ways in which it has impacted our lives and our society in a broader sense have been brought into sharp relief by this crisis. The demands and requirements of centralised workplaces have shaped the skylines of cities as high-rise towers have grown to house them, while mass transit systems developed to ferry workers between home and the office.

What we might today recognise as a modern workplace first emerged in the 17th century. As millions of people were crammed into dark, dangerous factories, lawyers, civil servants and similar professionals began to work from home – the act of keeping a private office a mark of status, power, wealth and education.

Early aristocrats gave way to powerful banking families and industrialists who maintained similar private spaces to conduct meetings and do deals away from prying eyes. Along the way there were innovators. From Sigmund Freud’s couch to Hugh Hefner’s circular bed to Andy Warhol’s warehouse, empires were built on statements made by where a person worked.

In the 20th century, access to these work environments grew, and the office became a marker of identity. While the aspirational middle classes laboured inside, the working classes remained outside – and so came to be called “rednecks” as the sun burnt their skin.

But the prestige soon faded as technological progress, in the form of telephones and typewriters, turned the office into a factory in its own right. This was encouraged by management consultants, including Frederick Winslow Taylor, who promoted “scientific management” to eke out ever higher levels of productivity from workers.

It was about this time, in the 1960s, the open-plan office emerged. Based on European ideas about the ideal workspace, when imported into North America and Australia the act of tearing down walls suggested an egalitarian work environment where everyone, save for the most senior of management, were on the same “level”.

The reality was very different. The popularity of open-planning – like hot-desking today – was more about money and control. If offices were expensive to run, “closely packing” workers on limited floor space offered a way to cut costs while allowing their activities to be monitored.

“If we focus on Australia, there is a long tradition of trying to maximise internal densities for increasing quick economic returns,” says Dr Elek Pafka, of the University of Melbourne’s School of Design. “The less floor space you have to build per employee, the more efficient it may appear.”

Pafka says that while much of the public concern around Covid-19 has thus far focused on the outside, it’s interior spaces that matter.

“The virus adds another layer that probably many offices were not designed for. These places were designed for very high internal densities that cannot operate under conditions such as these,” he says.

The defining feature of Covid-19 is its transmissibility, which means that, without a vaccine, the risk that one case may turn into thousands within weeks remains. This will force a rethink of how offices should function.

As long as social distancing regulations require four square metres for each person, open-plan offices will be expensive to run. Hot-desking – a practice pioneered in the tech industry where no employee has a permanent desk – will be too risky.

Tech companies, with their embrace of open-plan offices, hot-desking, communal kitchens and ping-pong tables, have been at the cutting edge of office design. In the wake of the virus, signs suggest they are reticent about returning to business as usual. Twitter, for example, has decided to have its employees work from home indefinitely.

It prompts questions about whether we are witnessing the end of the office as we know it. Dr Jim Stanford of the Centre for Future Work at The Australia Institute thinks this is unlikely.

His organisation’s research showed one in three Australians had the potential to work from home but only a fraction were given the opportunity as managers were reluctant to allow such flexibility.

“There isn’t a lot of data,” Stanford says. “But going forward I would expect a modest increase in the share of people who are doing this as part of their regular work.”

For many, Stanford says, working from home permanently will be unattractive at a time when work is becoming more precarious. An employee’s ability to work productively from home remains tied to their economic status, particularly as government support is wound back. Fast internet and childcare costs money, and the free space necessary for a home office is a luxury many cannot afford.

On the upside, reclaiming hours from the daily commute means more personal time and fewer cars on the road. It may also have mental health benefits. One survey from Mental Health America found 65 per cent of respondents reported that having their own space to work improved their mental health because, among thing things, they could stay out of office politics.

But working women have shouldered the burden of childcare and household tasks during this pandemic. This has expressed itself in novel ways – in academia, female academics appear to be submitting half as many papers as their male counterparts while in lockdown, according to reporting from The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, workers across the board will be left with the costs of heating, electricity and internet access with only a fraction of home office bills able to be written off on tax.

The surveillance of the modern workplace has also followed people home. Tech companies such as the US firm Hubstaff have gained attention for selling software to employers that provides real-time statistical analysis, GPS phone tracking, screen capture and webcam monitoring of those working from home.

Locally, South Australian consultancy firm Centre for People and Culture launched its own monitoring software the company says will help employers “check in” with their employees as they work from home.

Not that this is a new trend. Jeff Lapidos, tax branch secretary for the Australian Services Union, says the Australian Taxation Office has been running surveillance software called Verint for years.

“As of last Friday, the ATO had 11,000 employees working from home,” Lapidos says. “So, they’re all monitored.”

The ASU is currently locked in a dispute with the ATO at the Fair Work Commission over clause 50 of the agency’s enterprise bargaining agreement, which outlines the rules around working from home.

The ASU is arguing the tax office isn’t complying with this clause as it seeks to return staff to work. “The tax office says they’ve got 11,000 people working from home,” says Lapidos, “but none of them are covered by the working-from-home provision in the enterprise bargaining agreement.”

According to an ATO spokesperson, the agency has “asked some employees who were working at home under the short-term and informal Covid-19 arrangement to return to the office at short notice so that we can reposition them to deliver critical front-line services to the community.

“Where employees have had genuine personal reasons for not being able to return to an ATO workplace we have worked with them to find alternative duties,” the spokesperson said.

“As the matter is with Fair Work Commission, we will not comment any further.”

This dispute – and others like it – will set the stage for what comes next as the social and legal aspects of work collide with the work environment.

For Daniel Huppatz, while skipping the morning commute has been a boon, he’s ready to return to the office, in whatever form that may now take.

“In terms of what’s going to happen, I know as much as you, really,” he says. “I think there are ways to change for the better, but it could also get worse.

“Personally, I’m looking forward to going in to see people,” he says, “but I don’t need to go in every day.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2020 as "Work shifts".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Royce Kurmelovs
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist and author.

Our journalism is founded on trust and independence

Register your email for free access or log in if you already subscribe

      Keep Reading                 Subscribe