The office? Is there a future for behemoths?

Just what will the standard workplace look like as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic?
Just what will the standard workplace look like as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic?

If nothing else, COVID-19 has reinforced the immense value of digital capability.

Many businesses - including mine - were able to switch almost seamlessly from physical offices to online meetings and communication.

My business has been operating as a 'remote' business model for 25 years, but as urban Australians catch up, I think that we have had time to adjust to working from home, the question is, are we going back to the office?

If we don't, what are the implications for where people live, and how?

In the United States, a recent Gallup poll found about 62 per cent of Americans work remotely.

Given a choice, nearly 60 per cent of these remote workers would continue working from home, the figures are probably not too different in Australia.

Untethered from an office and a commute, people are free to live where they wish. An

d it seems that in growing numbers, they wish to escape crowded, expensive cities.

"The Australian dream is heading out to the country," says Simon Pressley, head of research at Propertyology.

A glance at median house prices across Australia's major urban centres shows that selling a house in one of the capital cities and buying almost anywhere else releases a lot of capital.

In a few months, COVID-19 has pushed this possibility within reach for a lot of Australians.

For regional centres, this is an opportunity to reshape their demographics.

But can employers benefit from the digitally-aided shift to remote working?

I've been having this discussion with a large group of non-executive directors of companies, some of them ASX-listed.

Businesses are wondering about the cultural implications of shifting from workplaces based on bricks-and-mortar and physical presence to virtual workplaces, joined instead by digital bits and bytes.

There is a willingness to explore this mode of working, long talked about but now an involuntary reality.

The key to making it work seems to come down to company culture - the ability to collaborate, management's commitment to productive change, and the technical capability to make change.

Not every business will be suited to releasing its employees from the office.

Some won't have the processes in place.

But some businesses, with enough commitment from the executive and a culture that supports collaboration whether it is across a table or over the internet, will succeed very well.

In the bush, we should hope companies use COVID-19 to build a culture of remote working, and hopefully prompt a genuine migration out of the major cities.

We've talked for a long time about the capability of digital communication to support people with global roles who want to live in the country.

It's happened slowly; hopefully now it happens fast.

  • Robbie Sefton has a dual investment in rural Australia as a farmer, producing wool, meat and grains, and as managing director of national marketing communications company Seftons.