Remote work is poised to be one of the most prominent industrial relations issues for the next decade as more employers seek to limit the ability to work from home.

New research has shown that employers are pushing harder for workers to get back into the office than ever before, even considering differentiating between the pay of in-office and at-home staff.

Over a quarter (27 per cent) of Australian employers surveyed by lawyers Herbert Smith Freehills for their Future Work report said that they would look at differentiating between the two groups in terms of salary in the next three to five years, with 13 per cent agreeing that remote workers should receive less pay and fewer benefits.

According to the survey, the vast majority of Australian businesses (83 per cent) expect their employees to work more in person over the next two years, higher than any other region with the global average sitting at 70 per cent.

However, this clashes with the preference of workers, who largely enjoy flexible working arrangements according to Australian employment and industrial law barrister Ian Neil SC.

“Employers are clawing back some freedoms permitted during the pandemic, but the working world is forever changed,” he said.

“One constant that began in the pandemic and has remained with us ever since and is very likely to grow is the preference of employees to work remotely rather than come into the office or factory and that’s just going to become more common.”

Mr Neil argued that there would be a “tug of war” between employers and workers over the right to work from home, with the availability of labour to determine who had the upper hand in the disagreement.

Herbert Smith Freehills employment lawyer Natalie Gaspar, who was heavily involved in the study, said that it was “not entirely surprising” that employers are considering differentiating pay between in-office and at-home workers as an incentive to get workers to return.

However, she noted that demand is inconsistent with what the unions are pushing for.

“Which of course, is that you‘re actually paying more for working from home and the rationale behind that narrative is that someone working entirely from home themselves has to pay for the gas and the electricity and the internet usage… and there’s less office space that the employer needs to provide for,” she said.

Professional services worker John Blackwater argues that the five-day in-office work week is a thing of the past.

“If companies don’t have flexibility they won’t attract the talent they’re looking for, especially in the younger generation,” he said.

“I’ve saved money, and I honestly have a higher sense of loyalty to my company because they trust me to deliver in my own way.”

The 25-year-old said his general quality of life has also improved dramatically since he increased his remote working days to four per week.

“Juggling mental health and post-grad studies, that one hour spent commuting adds up and is just wasted time,” he said.

“Linking productivity to being in the office is just a conventional idea that’s rooted in tradition, not truth.”

Ryan Slaviero, 27, works from home two days per week in Melbourne as a corporate travel agent.

Flexible working arrangements allowed him and his partner to spend extra time with their puppy, Bacon.

“It would have been much harder to get a puppy if we were in the office full-time because it would have disconnected us from Bacon and her from people,” Mr Slaviero said.

Two-year-old Bacon isn’t the only thing that has positively contributed to the 27-year-old’s happiness, with work-life balance cited as a top factor.

“We’re in a new age of mental health being the biggest priority,” Mr Slaverio said.

“Our generation has had our eyes opened to put ourselves first and at the end of the day, it’s a job. We want to be able to live our lives.”

Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil argues that those who work from home shouldn’t lose out on pay or conditions.

“Whether workers work from the office desk or kitchen table they should have fair pay, a safe and healthy work environment and the ability to draw a line between work and life,” she said.

“Workers’ wages are not even keeping up with inflation, in a cost-of-living crisis employers should be looking to increase, not cut workers’ wages.”

The demands of the unions have much more sway in Australia’s industrial landscape according to Ms Gaspar, who argued that legislative changes in the past year have “emboldened” collective action.

“The pendulum has swung back in favour of the workers and I think we‘re going to say an increase in good old fashioned collectivism, demands for worker’s rights and pressure brought to bear on employers in collective bargaining sets and we’re already starting to see more industrial action,” she said.

In July the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) reached an agreement with the Australian Public Service Commission to allow all staff to request flexible working arrangements.

CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly said traditional approaches to work had “hindered the attraction and retention of staff” across the public service.

“These significantly improved and enforceable flexible work rights will open doors for individuals who were previously unable to consider APS employment or had to leave because of a change in circumstances,” she said.

“This is good news for public servants, public services, public policy, and the public.”

Both Mr Slaviero and Mr Blackwater feel they are at least as, if not more, productive with flexible working arrangements, and believe professional opportunities should be awarded on that basis.

“As long as we’re doing the same amount of work and being as productive as each other, I don’t think working from home should be a consequence for earning less money,” Mr Slaviero said.

“It’s not about the location of where you work, It’s how hard you work.”

Mr Blackwater said companies wanting to draw employees back into the office should focus on incentives rather than punishment.

“Workplace culture, support, mental health resources, team bonding, things like that have a higher impact on employee satisfaction than penalising them for not coming into the office,” he said.

Ms Gaspar believes that a focus on workplace culture is part of the reason behind the push to get employees to return to the office.

“There‘s an understanding that there’s a richness that goes with collaboration and that learning can happen more organically in those sorts of environments,” she said.

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