Working from home (WFH) policies during the pandemic saved Sydney commuters $5.6 billion in time spent travelling to and from work, according to an extensive analysis that has recommended employers normalise WFH policies and embrace a voluntary code of practice.

The new report – prepared by Tulipwood Economics for the iMove Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) and entitled The Prospects for Working From Home: Assessing the Evidence – evaluated the impact of pandemic WFH through four projects run by transport authorities and universities in Queensland, NSW, South Australia, and Western Australia.

The Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies (ITLS) and Planning and Transport Research Centre (PATREC) analysed real-time traffic data and found the “remarkable increase” in remote working during the pandemic cut total time costs for Sydneysiders by 54 per cent because workers were commuting less – saving $5.6b overall.

Fully 9 out of 10 workers in the information, media and telecommunications (IMT) industries reported working from home during the survey period.

Overall, WFH workers used public transport up to 20 per cent less.

Commuter costs declined dramatically during the pandemic, with car commuters saving $71 per week and public-transport commuters saving $116.43 per week, on average.

Eliminating travel times provided more time to do other things – with NSW employees reporting that, even with just one WFH day per week, they spent 22.3 per cent of their reclaimed time doing additional unpaid work.

Furthermore, PATREC noted, workers “were more adaptive and proactive under a hybrid model of work than working solely at home or in the workplace”.

How to make WFH permanent

Previous analyses have suggested employees can only handle up to two days in the office per week, with warnings that forcing returns to the office could send many employees packing, despite one study suggesting remote work is bad for productivity.

The composition of hybrid models is still being negotiated as workers return to the office – but demonstrated savings and efficiency improvements led iMove to recommend that employers adopt “a more flexible system based on voluntary negotiation”.

Up to a quarter of Australia’s workforce could end up on split rosters with just two or three office days per week on an ongoing basis, the iMove analysis found.

Widespread adoption could reduce overall transport demand by up to 20 per cent compared to pre-COVID levels – reducing crowding on public transport and, in so doing, “somewhat counter-intuitively [making] it more attractive.”

“Greater work flexibility means more flexibility in departure time choice,” the report notes, suggesting that new work patterns could shift many commuters away from morning and evening peak times and reduce congestion throughout the day.

“Identifying and managing the longer-term implications of the shift to WFH will not be easy,” the report adds, noting that transport authorities will likely need to tweak investments in local pedestrian walkways, bicycle lanes, and other local infrastructure – as well as reconsidering plans for major infrastructure upgrades.

Transport planning authorities will also need to “consider the relative merits of alternative, or parallel investments in digital infrastructure” to support WFH activities, iMove recommended.

Obligations for employers

Approximately 40 per cent of Australian workers were estimated to be working from home in 2020 and 38 per cent in 2021, the report notes – compared with around 8 per cent before the pandemic.

Professionals, managers, and clerical and administrative workers are the most capable of WFH, with white-collar workers working on average of 4.2 days from home and around a third of workers expecting to be doing so at least some of the time going forward.

Given the economic savings from allowing employers to work from home, and the fact that working from home is here to stay, iMove recommends that employers develop “a standard code of practice” in cases where adopting such a code “would be less costly than developing bespoke codes by industry or occupation”.

Such a code would establish standard policies around WFH and hybrid work, spelling out issues such as minimum work hours across standard time periods; dress and appearance standards for video calls; and clarification of who pays for capital equipment (such as laptops) and home energy consumption.

Government agencies should consider WFH’s potential net financial savings to the taxpayer; worker and workplace productivity; early career training and mentoring opportunities; and information security issues.

“It is clear from a review of the evidence on employer and employee preferences that the WFH experiment is still very much in progress,” the report concludes. “While there are many clear benefits from switching to WFH, there are also potential costs, some of which may not be immediately obvious to either employers or employees.”