The Australian Census is coming. It will be on Tuesday 10th August. That's the only prediction I am likely to get 100% right.
What are some of the key themes that might be revealed by a Census taken in the midst of a pandemic? I have one prediction which might sound counter intuitive. If I am right, you can praise my insights and almost psychic forecasting powers. If I am wrong, I will bury this article and forever deny its existence.
So what's the prediction? I am going out on a limb and will suggest that despite all the debate and discussion about Covid-19 and working from home (WFH), the increase in the overall proportion of people working from home won't be as great as much of the media might have you think.
For some context, the proportion of all Australians who worked from home in previous Censuses has been relatively stable. In 2006, it was 4.88%. In 2011 it was 4.48%. In 2016 it was 4.75%. (Thanks to Urban Economics for the numbers). That period saw an exponential growth in technological capacity, but it was a virus that finally achieved what technology could not – sending many CBD workers out of the office and home to their kitchen tables. And many are politely declining the opportunity to return. This recent article titled "The five-day office week is dead, long live the hybrid model, says productivity boss" features research by The Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald of 50 of the largest office worker type companies. The research indicates "an overwhelming majority expect to continue allowing employees to work at least part of the week from home once the pandemic ends."
That is also reflected in Property Council data which reveals most major CBDs are struggling to get past the two thirds mark of pre-pandemic occupancy. The reasons are revealing, with the majority citing a preference for work from home flexibility over the 5 day commute to the CBD office, not safety or other considerations. This aligns with similar evidence from both the USA and Europe. Working from home will have a lasting impact on CBD and inner city office workers - and their workplaces - around the world.
So how is it I am silly enough to predict that this Census, taken as we begin to emerge from a pandemic (albeit now with Sydney in the grips of another city-wide lockdown), will underwhelm many with the actual numbers working from home? Obviously there will be an increase, and it may even get closer to 10% (which yes, is a doubling on previous years, but off a small base). That would still mean around 90% of Australian workers are travelling to a workplace. Why?
First, let's recall that CBDs only employ around 10% of a metro area's workforce. We have consistently attributed CBDs with much greater economic function than has been borne out by the Census or other data sources. Those almost mythical powers have perhaps been bestowed on city centres because that's also where the great majority of government agencies are based, along with the media, many academics and certainly the wealthy professional class. We aren't very good at seeing the bigger picture outside the inner-city bubble.
Not only do CBDs account for a small proportion of the workforce, they are also relatively slow growing. The Census of 2016 showed – in the case of Brisbane at least but a trend I understand was also found in Sydney and Melbourne – that the CBD was the slowest growing place of work. In the 5 years from 2011 to 2016, it added just 6,354 workers. That's full time, permanent and part time, from cleaners to CEOs. That was just a 5% increase on the 2011 number, and only a 3% share of the 183,901 new jobs created across the metro region in that time. By comparison, the inner city grew by 7%, the inner ring by 9%, and the metro/suburban region, grew by 12%. The Gold and Sunshine Coasts grew by 25% and 23% respectively. The further away from the CBD, the faster the jobs growth. The trend of the suburbanisation of jobs was well and truly underway already.
Given such a small proportion of the workforce are actually based in CBDs, a major decline in CBD based office work in favour of work from home, is unlikely to have a big impact on census numbers. But what of the other 90% of jobs? True, there are many professionals who work in suburban locations. In Brisbane (and likely also similar in Sydney and Melbourne) 76% of white-collar professionals were based in suburban workplaces at last Census. If these workers also opted to work from home to the same extent as CBD workers, my Census prediction is in dire straits. However, gut instinct tells me that suburban professionals have less reason to opt for work from home than their inner-city counterparts. Their commutes are less for starters. And quite possibly, the return to favour of suburban villages and centres may have even elevated the value of the suburban professional workplace. We will see.
But the major over-riding rationale behind my prediction is that the majority of jobs in the economy are unable to support work from home in the first place. Health and education workers are by definition proximity workers: they need to be near patients or students to work best. And these are now the largest employer industries in the country. Close behind are people who work in retail and wholesale, and transport and logistics. These are occupations which are unlikely ever to be offered a work from home opportunity. How about construction? Hmm, not likely. Then there is manufacturing (still a major employer). Also unlikely. Tourism and hospitality? Not at all – these workers bore the biggest brunt of Covid lockdowns, because they had no "plan b" work from home alternative. Then there are resources and primary industries. Maybe a farmer's tractor is almost work from home, but that's a stretch.
The point being that the inner urban professional class tends to overstate its importance in the greater scheme of things. The facts however are that the vast majority of Australians do not live or work in inner cities and have not had the opportunity to work from home in the way that some have. Endless media commentary, industry group statements, politician's media releases or corporate agonising over the fate of the inner city, will not change that. But we will have to wait for the Census results to find out.
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