With years of punishing fiscal conditions awaiting Australia, austere federal Budgets are unlikely to be kind to innovation – but that, observers believe, shouldn’t diminish the opportunity to reshape our workforce by doubling down on remote working.

With the surge in home working expected to last, demographer Simon Kuestenmacher told Information Age, the COVID-19 pandemic may prove to be the thing that finally disrupts the clustering of skilled Australians around CBD-based communities of interest.

“Cities will be restructured, essentially because of COVID-19,” explained Kuestenmacher, director of research with The Demographics Group.

The global crash course in remote working and learning will, he said, pressure employers to restructure jobs that had long been kept in-house out of habit.

“We’ve always spoken about the trend towards working from home, but we were surprised in the last few years how slow the movement actually was,” he said, noting workers’ widespread frustration from “this constant disconnect between what you think you should be able to do and what you are experiencing”.

After months of successful remote working, however, “we’ve proved the concept that we can work from home – and this innovation really is a thing that everyone has access to.”

Despite long ‘talking the talk’, Australian businesses have struggled to turn innovation into cultural change: the pre-COVID Ricoh 2020 Workplace Innovation Index, for one, ranked Australia 14 out of 63 nations in terms of digital competitiveness.

Fully 65 per cent of Australian business leaders in that survey said they understood collaboration was crucial but weren’t using collaboration tools in the most productive way.

This led Ricoh Australia CEO Andy Berry to call for a “culture shift”, warning that “Australia has always been a nation of innovators but the challenge we face today is a lack of focus on taking our good ideas and developing businesses around them.”

Changing the workforce

Months later, COVID-19 remote working and learning have provided the impetus for change – and an imperative for companies whose economic viability has been threatened.

Australian workers should renegotiate their contracts around remote working, Kuestenmacher said, and consider the appeal of regional areas with larger blocks and less congestion.

“If you only need to go to the office 2 days per week, you may be willing to do a longer commute and can look further out from the CBD for a larger, more affordable home,” Kuestenmacher explained.

Home builders may cash in as well, with newly designed properties likely to have purpose-built home-office space rather than just stuffing home workers into a tiny spare bedroom.

Widespread use of home-working technologies could also give more women the flexibility to return to part-time work, but Kuestenmacher believes extending the government’s free childcare experiment would help the post COVID economy benefit from massive “pent-up, untapped female potential”.

“Right now, we have high unemployment,” he said, “but we will reach a point where we will create jobs and need more workers.”

“Those workers are already trained and skilled and sitting in their homes – but they are not going back to work because it would be financial suicide.”

Time to step up – and look down

COVID-19’s effect on Australia’s demographics and work practices will inform the government’s efforts to rearchitect an economy left exposed by its parlous overreliance on resources.

Industry groups have implored the government to maintain R&D funding, but with budget constraints tightening the screws on government-backed innovation – and restricted international travel limiting access to skilled workers – reinvention will be risky.

That’s nothing new for Sagar Sethi, an entrepreneur who said Australia’s weak support for innovative business had long handicapped entrepreneurs.

“As a startup, I didn’t have any favourable grants,” said Sethi, who founded digital-media agency Xugar, “and we still had to pay employees exactly the same as a multi million-dollar organisation would pay – and source clients in the same way as someone who has 100 times deeper pockets as us.”

Australia’s government had historically leaned towards supporting big business, but in the wake of COVID-19’s king hit, Sethi believes the government “needs to ensure the support is from the ground up”.

The extensive and largely successful coronavirus response showed that the government “can put measures in place and is quite able to adapt and pivot when it is required”, he said.

“We have never had government work as efficiently as during the coronavirus pandemic, and the whole global system is now pushing for Australia to step up.”

“We have this beautiful country where a lot of innovation can happen – and digital is the way forward.”

Zoom’s position as the pandemic’s defining technology has highlighted the importance of social connection in the post-COVID world – and should provide guidance for Australian entrepreneurs looking for new opportunities.

“The economy is dependent on digital transformation and connections between people using technology,” he explained, suggesting that the Budget should increase, not decrease, support for digital innovators.

“It’s digital that made it possible for businesses to keep running while everyone had to stay at home,” he said, “and if you limit the life breath of the economy, that’s exactly how it will feel if the budget for technology and innovation is cut.”