Good morning everyone, it is a pleasure to be here.
Someone said to me as we were coming into this economics theatre that this was shaped like an igloo. So, coming to an economics igloo, I’d like to give you some of my history degree.
I think that when we look at the start, and we should take note at the start, of where we are now, or rather where we are not, none of us are at our office. We are somewhere else.
Still though, for the vast majority of us this week, we spend most of our days getting up each morning, travelling to our office or our workplace and then returning home.
It sounds trite to point this out, but we should perhaps look at the history of the office.
The story of the office that I would submit to you this morning begins in Egypt in 1920, where there was an affable American Archaeology Major by the name of Herbert Winlock.
Winlock, in case you weren’t aware, was the New York Metropolitan museum’s resident Egyptologist. He was surveying the tomb of royal chief steward Meketre, a longsuffering loyal bureaucrat and office worker under several Pharaohs, who had the privilege of being buried with one of them round 4000BC.
That would change the ‘Yes Minister’ scenarios.
Most of the treasures from the tomb have long since been plundered by the time Mr Winlock arrived in 1920, but Winlock stumbled across a secret chamber and it contained in it a number of small wooden models.
In model form, those fundamentals of old Egyptian society, there was a brewery, a bakery, a granary, a weaver’s loom and a butcher’s shop.
But, at the core of the whole small building, in a separate room, were four scribes squatting on the floor with writing equipment strewn around them—ink pots, sheets of parchment—engaged in the unchanged clerical task of copying and record-keeping.
Herbert Winlock, I would submit to you, found the origins back then of the modern office.
Whilst I don’t believe we should be squatting any longer on stone floors scribbling on parchment – and if you do, please contact my office and we’ll contact the Fair Work Ombudsman - I would submit that the idea of the ‘workplace’ is as old as civilisation itself.
But that is not to say the workplace of the future should be set in stone; or marble, or that indeed you should be buried with your boss. But today’s conference is about how we shape our future.
Ever since the introduction of computers in the roll out of 25 years ago perhaps, we’ve been experiencing wave after wave of technical innovation that changes the way we do business.
We know the list intimately. The roll-out of personal computers, networked systems, access to the internet, smartphones, conference calls, mobile phones, email, cloud technology, Skype—all of these technologies have a major disruptive impact on our workplace.
The digital revolution opens up unprecedented possibilities; innovations are changing economies and markets and hours of work and reinventing relationships between organisations, suppliers and customers.
The digital economy is changing society. It is invading weekends. It interrupts anything. It brings both delight and frustration.
But I don’t believe that our digital revolution is solely a function of better technology.
I don’t think that we can simply fill existing business models with as much technology as possible. Building a better mouse trap long after the mice have left the building.
I believe in our workplace of the future, we need to evolve.
We need to shape and create our work around the possibilities that altering technologies makes possible with it.
I believe when we talk about telework it is much more about the people than the technology, and how a job can be performed and the way we organise ourselves, and our weekends, and our family lives, and our novel reading, to get our job done.
We know what the future looks like.
We know for instance, regardless of who is in power in the next 30 and 40 years, if I can dare break the mold of thinking beyond the next 24 hours of the media cycle, we know that Asia will continue to rise and that heterogeneous Asian economies will keep emerging strongly.
We know we are going to be living longer. We know that the need for sustainability will increase, not decrease. We know that in fact we are a services-based economy as well as a construction and manufacturing economy, and agriculture economy. We know that women will continue their inevitable march through the institutions of power. And we know that the impact of the digital economy on Australia will continue to disrupt and change massively.
And it is this last point which I particularly wish to refer to in the next few minutes, of course, but friends we know what the future looks like. We don’t know exactly every aspect of it, but think about those trends.
If you believe they are the trends of the future, well then, we know some of what is coming. The question is then how we respond from what we can logically see in the next 30 to 40 years.
Now, telework is of course a part of this future.
Fewer people work in the ‘traditional workplace’, and by ‘traditional workplace,’ what I mean is not necessarily the steel mill or an aluminium smelter or a canteen or a hospital or a university. What I mean by ‘traditional workplace’ is that fewer people will work under direct and ongoing supervision of a manager.
About 1.4 million people currently in Australia work partly or wholly from home. That is the population of South Australia, including the three-year-olds.
These figures will only continue to grow when fast broadband, cloud computing, mobile telecommunications, instantly transmissible home movies, and indeed more leisure items, become more widely available.
I look at some of the best-practice already, such as Microsoft, or indeed some of the banks are organising their workplaces these days, we will start to work from almost anywhere.
And I think there are benefits to what is happening with telework.
- It can open up workforce participation
- It can boost productivity
- It can reduce urban congestion on our roads
- It can reduce the real estate and associated expenses for employers, expect for of course if you are Myer, then you are not so happy with the rise of the internet.
- It can provide time and cost savings for employees.
- It can mean you can get home before your kids have gone to bed.
It means that when you are an underground miner at Beaconsfield, perhaps they would have had a robot there and a man wouldn’t have been killed, so it has all sorts of benefits, working tele-remote.
But we still lag behind leading nations from Europe and North America in telework take-up rates, but the Prime Minister has just said that our goal is to increase to 12 per cent, the number of employees, who have a tele-worker arrangement with their employer.
But we need to make sure it is utilised at all points. I am interested in particular in the discussion which we have about the productivity aspect of telework.
Ever since we talk about productivity, people say, well, telework, it is going to change everything.
I would like to submit to you that rather than looking at telework as the change, look at the principals of telework, the principals which enhance productivity generally in our workplaces.
For me, it isn’t an either or equivalent, whether you are physically at a work station or you are somewhere else. For me, what creates productivity in the workplace is not necessarily the location of where you do the work. It is the whole range of other factors.
I do not believe that productivity and telework is something which is conducted in a black box, independent of principals of a modern economy.
Let me just explain what I mean by that: we know that if we agree to those trends that I mentioned of the future, then what I put to you is that productivity is not a facet of a particular section of the Fair Work Act.
If you read the editorial pages of the Financial Review, you would think that if you could simply pull out your Harry Potter wand, deregulate the labour market, get rid of the legislation and we have a new sought of nirvana of workplace relations, that is tosh.
The principals I think which are evident in best-practice telework actually unpack productivity in Australia. There are lessons in telework and productivity, if done well, which actually assist all aspects of our economy.
Let me submit to you what a couple of those features of productivity in telework may look like.
Faced, perhaps not so much in my current job, but in my previous job as a union rep, where I would’ve seen 10,000 workplaces. Nothing in the telework world replaces the role of leadership. Leadership is what changes things. Leadership and empowerment.
What I like about telework is it forces those authority mandarins, who insist on compartmentalising information, and not telling the people immediately below them what’s going on, so they can justify their name plate on the door in their organisation. What I mean by that is there’s over a million Australians–if we unpacked our functional descriptions of what we do at work–there’s over a million of us who are managing other people.
We may think we’re a nation of shearers, or bloggers, or personal trainers. The reality is we are a nation of managers. We love a little bit of authority over someone else, and that’s our job. And you’ve got to understand where I fit in–slightly above where you are. Well actually, I’m geospatially below you all.
But leadership does make a difference, and telework challenges the notion that I have to see you and you have to be at your desk reporting in order to get the job done. So I think that’s a marvellous opportunity to open our eyes up to the benefits of empowering people with flatter management structures.
Second, I think an observation with telework and productivity is let’s talk about best practice. In this country at this moment we debate regulation in the labour market. You’ve got a trade union view, you’ve got to be careful of the scallywags, so you regulate against the scallywags. And then you’ve also got those with the management view–I’ll call it the AFR editorial board view for the sake of the simple umbrella and a collective noun - where they would say deregulate everything because it’s blue sky out there. It’s blue sky–don’t worry about the clouds. It’s blue sky, we told you.
So the point about regulation, though we are fighting over the bottom 10 per cent of the debate. To me what’s important is not that each point doesn’t have some validity, but rather there’s value to be created, and we do that through best practice.
Telework provides the opportunity to demonstrate people letting go of traditional notions of management control, and again best practice shows what can be done.
There’s a third observation: Australians love their real estate. Do you know in 1900, two in every three Australians–we love our real estate but we also love to live near our job–two in every three Australians was living in the bush, because that’s where the jobs were; 2010, two in every three of us live in the city, near our job.
What I’m interested in is that because of telework, and the rise of the digital economy, one in every four of us in the next 20 years will be living by the beach. That’s what’s happening.
So what it means is telework has the potential to provide not only environmental benefits, productivity benefits, but with work-life benefits. But we need not to approach this issue of telework thinking that it’s an unfettered opportunity without understanding the need to have protocols, best practice leadership, and making sure that people aren’t getting ripped off. We need to recognise that it’s a balance of best practice.
What I also like about what telework represents is the opportunity to include groups you don’t normally get included in the jobs market. Now, it’s an interesting stat that something like 93 in every 100 men, who have a child under five are working. Yet for women with children under five it’s barely 55 in every 100. I believe telework at least provides the opportunity to give people a partial re-engagement in the workforce, reflecting the cycle of where they are in their life. But it doesn’t just stop perhaps with that group.
It could apply to older workers–you know, the people who’ve retired to the Mornington Peninsula or Woy Woy or Byron Bay. It doesn’t mean they’re going to all come back to town. But it means we don’t lose over a cliff of retirement the skills that people have to provide to the rest of us.
And another third group who could benefit are people with disabilities, who currently receive quite discriminatory unconscious bias in Australia. The unemployment rate is ridiculously high. And when I think about that I realise that why on earth would we want to put into exile literally hundreds of thousands of people with significant, profound impairment, millions if we go down the level of impairment, and just say you deserve a second class outcome.
Australia can’t afford to write off a large chunk of the population, say we don’t want you, we’re doing fine. You reckon? When the mineral prices eventually come down we’re going to need our people. We need people with disabilities. And they are an opportunity. And they deserve a go.
So friends, what I’d put to you this morning is that we know where our future is and that some things change, but some things stay the same. And we also understand that when we talk about telework and productivity and the people part and people element of it, it’s actually not that different to the rest of the economy.
And if you think that empowering people, if you think that we should have best practice, if you think we should respect work-life balance, if you recognise that there are groups missing out, if you recognise that in fact what we need is to have better leadership–we haven’t had a talk about productivity in telework, we’ve had a talk about work and productivity. And telework provides an opportunity to get people to say, oh, it really does work.
I don’t know, and this is a great conversation to have over Christmas–are Australians a conservative people, who periodically embrace change; do we like change and periodically just want to see the benefits of it? I don’t have to decide that today–are we conservative or are we open for change? What I do know is that Australians have already worked out that future.
In conclusion, we know that we’re going to live longer – that’s a non-refundable theory. But we are, on average. We know that we need to have more than one set of skills in our life and that we’ll have eight or nine jobs in our life and several careers now. We know that we need to be fitter than we once were, just because there’s no point in growing old and being too unfit–you don’t get the benefits of the first proposition.
We also know that we need to smooth our wealth over the years because we live longer. We need more money. We also know that catastrophe can occur and it doesn’t have to be that bushfire or that mine falling on your head. It could be something as mundane as divorce. It could be something as basic as grandparents, who’ve become parents again of their grandchildren, because their immediate children have fallen into drugs or worse.
We know. Australians have got it worked out. And that’s what I think about telework. We mightn’t necessarily invent every piece of technology that Cisco has in Australia, but we love to adapt it.
So whether or not you think we’re a conservative people cautiously looking at change, or more open minded about change, I’m completely sure we are a people capable of adapting good ideas to suit our own needs. And when I come to telework and productivity I suspect that what we can do is use telework and a debate about productivity there to reconsider what is best in all our workplaces and all our productivity.
Thanks very much.
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