Sunday Apr 02, 2023

The future of work is flexible – The Spinoff


We proved we can work from home during a global pandemic. Now, footloose workers, funky offices and an ever-growing female workforce mean working remotely is the way forward. Kiwibank economist Mary Jo Vergara breaks it down.

This content was created in paid partnership with Kiwibank.

Enticed by the promise of work, workers during the Industrial Revolution were required by factories to be in the same location to utilise the machinery. From this, the modern office was born; offices were organised into desks overseen by the big boss, mimicking production lines. Fast forward 200 years and the basic function of the office has stood the test of time – despite the rise of the internet. Communication has since been digitally transformed, now driven by electronic means like email and online documents. But it was still convention for workers to be within sight – that is until the pandemic hit.

It’s March 26, 2020, and machines are powered down, stovetops are turned off and storefronts are boarded up. New Zealand is in alert level four lockdown and 40% of its workforce take part in a global experiment. The hypothesis? People can work from home. After 50 days and a contraction in economic activity far smaller than initially feared, we proved it. The pandemic has broken convention and unlocked the possibility of working from anywhere. The rise in the use of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype and Google Hangouts has mobilised the office entirely. New Zealand’s workforce has become even more digitally connected.

Not only can we work from home, but we want to. Covid lockdowns aside, many are choosing to work from home more regularly than before the pandemic began. What was born out of necessity has become a preference. With the expectation of more time spent working from home, more and more people are investing in their home office set-up. Trends in recent consumer spending describe as much – not only have New Zealanders bought more pools, pets and pizza ovens but also office chairs, desks and electronics. Before the latest lockdown, Kiwibank card spend on office equipment was up 1.4% on 2019 levels. And with endless online meetings, there’s demand for the premium experience – spending on online services spiked during 2020 and remains elevated. 

The success of working from home has prompted many companies to incorporate flexible working, and greater flexibility in work location and hours can significantly improve the labour market outcomes for working mothers, who make up 30% of New Zealand’s workforce. Their participation rates typically drop in the prime parenting group of 25-49-year-olds, as they withdraw from the labour market to care for dependent children. That dip has shallowed over time largely due to delayed motherhood and a greater proportion of women aged 55 years and over remaining active in the labour force later in life. The dip may become even less pronounced with the change in working patterns because flexible working should support women returning earlier to the labour market after having children. It should also result in better retention among older workers – both men and women – and further lift participation rates.

Flexibility in working patterns has indeed become a must-have in employee value propositions. And in this day and age, the ability to provide better employee benefits is especially crucial because companies are competing for scarce workers. New Zealand’s labour market has never been tighter – the unemployment …….


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