Only a few years ago, the idea of working from home was seen as a privilege – something rarely afforded to workers. Now, for many Australian employees, working from home has become a part of their working life, and something that they are willing to fight for. The benefits of working from home are far-reaching. From improved work-life balance and increased productivity to cost savings and environmental benefits, the advantages of remote work are undeniable.
But despite these clear benefits, Australian employees are increasingly facing the prospect of losing the ability to work from home. With many of the nation’s employers introducing return to office mandates, workers are being forced to fight for the right to work from home.
Australian employers and the dreaded push back into the office
A 2023 survey by recruitment firm Robert Half highlighted that 87 per cent of Australian employers have implemented mandatory office days for staff. The survey found that 28 per cent of employers are requiring that employees work in the office for four days of the week. While 19 per cent have mandated that employees work in the office for the full five days.
If you have been following the news, this push back into the office and curbing of work from home privileges has been driven by some of Australia’s biggest companies. Perhaps most notably, the Commonwealth Bank’s decision in April to partially roll back its work from home policy caused outrage. Not only amongst its staff, who are being compelled to work in the office 50 per cent of the time, but also among other Australian workers. Many feel that if Australia’s leading corporates begin mandating that their workers relinquish their work from home privileges, many other companies will follow suit. And that is what is currently happening.
Other companies are attempting to curb work from home privileges
Shortly following the Commonwealth Bank’s decision to mandate a return to the office, the National Australia Bank scrapped work from home privileges for 500 of its senior staff. The company ordered staff to return to the office for five days per week. National Australia Bank CEO Ross McEwan stated that the move was compelled by the need for staff to receive adequate training and development.
“I’m one for flexibility. I always have been, but we have also got to make sure our people are trained and developed well”. Mr McEwan told 9News in May 2023. “It’s hard to do it when you don’t have a leader who’s beside you, listening to what’s going on the phones.”
Global companies have led the push back into the office
This push back into the office has been led by global companies that have chosen to roll back work from home privileges for staff. In February 2023, Amazon’s CEO, Andy Jassy, mandated that corporate employees work in the office at least three days of the week. Mr Jassy asserted that in-person collaboration would fortify the company’s culture and make teamwork more seamless. This decision, though, triggered a massive backlash. Thousands of employees used Amazon’s internal messaging platform to voice their concerns. They even organised a petition against the change.
To ensure workers are complying with the in-office mandate, Amazon has been tracking whether they are only working from home two days per week. In emails leaked to the press, those who have failed to comply have been told that they are “not currently meeting our expectation of joining your colleagues in the office at least three days a week.”
Tech companies roll back work from home privileges
In 2023, a slew of global tech companies have mandated that employees must come into the office at least three days per week. In March 2023, Apple CEO Tim Cook ordered the company’s senior leaders to return to the office at least three days a week, citing the need to restore “in-person collaboration.” However, employees responded with a petition, arguing that they could deliver “exceptional work” remotely.
Google’s return-to-office policy in April 2023 called for employees in several US locations to work in the office for at least three days a week. The company is tracking the attendance of workers via office badges as part of its employee performance reviews. To coax workers back into the office, Google has taken a novel approach. It is offering employees to stay at an on-campus hotel for $99 per night.
“Just imagine no commute to the office in the morning and instead, you could have an extra hour of sleep and less friction,”Google offer
Meta, formerly Facebook, has ceased offering remote work for new job listings. From September 2023, the company’s employees will be required to work in the office three days a week. This marks a departure from Google’s previous remote-friendly stance. Salesforce had initially allowed its employees to “work from anywhere.” However, the tech giant has since revised its return-to-office policy to require non-remote employees to work in the office three days a week. The company’s engineers, meanwhile, are required to attend the office for 10 days per quarter.
Workers are fighting to keep working from home
While workers seem to be facing a wave of employers attempting to curb work from home privileges, they have been fighting back. In Australia, the Finance Sector Union has been engaged in an ongoing fight to help National Australia Bank and Commonwealth Bank employees to gain the right to work from home.
This effort has resulted in positive outcomes for employees and their demands for remote work flexibility. In July 2023, National Australia Bank reached an agreement with the Finance Sector Union. The agreement grants thousands of its staff the right to work from home as part of a new pay deal. National Australia Bank employees now have the ability to request flexible working options, including work from home arrangements. In addition, requests for flexible work arrangements are now weighted towards approval. This signals National Australia Bank’s commitment to accommodating its employees’ work from home needs.
Additionally, the agreement includes provisions for addressing needs related to menstrual periods and menopause. And it establishes an internal dispute resolution process to address any conflicts that may arise regarding flexible work arrangements. Furthermore, approximately 80 per cent of National Australia Bank’s 32,000 staff members will benefit from a 17.5% pay increase over the course of four years. This substantial pay increase signifies the bank’s recognition of the value its employees bring to the organisation.
Union takes Commonwealth Bank to Fair Work Commission
The National Australia Bank has made significant strides towards embracing flexible work. However, the Commonwealth Bank faces a growing dispute with the Finance Sector Union over its work arrangements. The union contends that the bank’s requirement for staff to work at least half of their hours in the office violates its enterprise agreement.
The Finance Sector Union has taken steps to seek the intervention of the Fair Work Commission to address the matter. The union is advocating for a consultation process aligned with the Commonwealth Bank’s enterprise agreement. It believes that the bank’s unilateral changes to work from home arrangements disregarded the existing agreement.
“We have asked the Fair Work Commission to intervene in this matter,” What the CBA has done is ignore the Enterprise Agreement and instead, dictate changes to work from home arrangements that currently suit many of its employees.”Finance Sector Union national secretary Julia Angrisano said in a statement in July 2023.
The Commonwealth Public Service sets an example on work from home rights
Many large corporates may be mandating employees to return to the office. But in stark contrast, the Commonwealth public service has recently embraced some of the most generous work from home rights in the nation. This came about as part of a broader deal with the Community and Public Sector Union to enhance employee mobility. It applies to 174,000 public servants across 103 federal agencies.
Under the new agreement, all Commonwealth public service employees can request flexible work arrangements, including working from home. And agencies are no longer permitted to impose limits on the number of work from home days per week. Furthermore, there is now a pronounced bias towards approving work from home requests. Agencies can only refuse requests on reasonable business grounds after genuinely trying to reach an agreement with the employee. In cases of refusal without genuine effort to reach an agreement, employees have the right to challenge the decision in the Fair Work Commission.
This groundbreaking agreement reflects a remarkable turnaround in the government’s perspective on workforce flexibility. The previous Coalition government had imposed limitations on working from home and encouraged public servants to return to the office.
Federal court rules that employee does not have the right to work from home
National Australia Bank and Commonwealth public service employees may have recently won more rights when it comes to working from home. But elsewhere, there have been setbacks in the broader battle for such rights. In particular, a recent decision by the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia does not bode well for legal recognition of the right to work from home. This decision was in relation to the general protections case Homes v Australian Carers Pty Ltd (No 2) .
In the case, Charmaine Homes had alleged that she was discriminated against, bullied or harassed because Australian Carers had refused her request to work from home.Ms Homes was employed by Australian Carers as a customer service representative. She worked in the office, but she requested to work from home on a trial basis. Her supervisor, Ms Grantham, initially agreed to the request.However, after a few weeks, Ms. Grantham reversed her decision and told Ms Homes that she would have to return to the office. Ms Homes was disappointed, but she complied with Ms Grantham’s decision.
Employee resigns from her position
A few weeks later, Ms Homes was called into a meeting with Ms Grantham and another manager. The managers told Ms Homes that her performance was not meeting expectations. They also told her that she would have to improve her performance or she would be terminated. Ms Homes was upset and confused. She felt that she was being treated unfairly. So she decided to resign from her job.
Employee files general protections claim with Fair Work Commission
Ms Homes subsequently filed a general protections complaint with the Fair Work Commission. This was alleging that she had been discriminated against, bullied and harassed by Australian Carers. She alleged that she was refused a request to work from home because she is a woman. She also alleged that she was treated differently from her supervisor, Ms Grantham, who was also a woman. Ms Homes also alleged that she was subjected to bullying, harassment or discrimination during a meeting with her supervisor.
Federal court rules on general protections claim
Considering the general protections claim, the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia found that Australian Carers had “no case to answer.” That is, with respect to Ms Homes’ claims that she had a right to work from home. The court found that Ms Homes did not have a “legislative or contractual right to work from home.” It was also noted that previous cases considered in the court’s decision do “not support a general right or entitlement in an employee to provide their services from home at their election.”
Court sides with employer on work from home issue
The court also found that the fact that her supervisor was permitted to work from home did not mean that Ms Homes had a right or entitlement to do so. It was found that her supervisor was “somebody who was working at a different level doing a different job with a different level of experience.” And therefore, Australian Carers had the right “to treat her differently when it came to working from home.”
The court also stated that Australian Carers’ refusal to allow Ms Homes to work from home was “consistent with the fact that there was no such right”. And as such, it was found that there was “nothing to ground the allegation of bullying, harassment or discrimination” with respect to the work from home refusal.
Court address additional bullying claims
The court had established that Ms Homes had not been bullied, harassed or discriminated against due to Australian Carers’ refusal of work from home privileges. However, it also stated that this did not mean that there was “no case to answer” with respect to Ms Homes’ claims that she was bullied, harassed or discriminated against” due to Australian Carers’ actions in dealing with her work from home request.
The court considered the claim that Ms Homes had been bullied, harassed or discriminated against in a meeting with her supervisor. It stated that there was “some evidence of what might amount to an acrimonious exchange or exchanges, and possibly bullying or harassment” during the meeting.
Court says employer has case to answer with respect to additional bullying claims
The court dismissed the supervisor’s claim that bullying “cannot be a one-off disagreement.” It stated that “an employee is entitled not to be bullied, whether once, twice or dozens of times.” And that they arguably have “a workplace right not to be bullied as part of a right to a safe workplace under the WHS Act.”. The court stated that the matter of whether Ms Homes had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination “are matters which the court will have to determine.”.
Why employees are fighting for work from home rights
If there was a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the normalisation of working from home. With much of Australian’s population thrust into their home offices for much of the lockdown, it demonstrated that many jobs can be performed remotely. And not only that, it also proved that many roles could be performed with higher efficiency and productivity.
According to a report by Prodoscore, remote workers were 47 per cent more productive in 2020 compared to the previous year. Another study by Stanford University revealed that the productivity of 16,000 workers increased by 13 per cent over a period of nine months. This boost in productivity can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, employees who work from home typically encounter fewer workplace distractions. There are less likely to be pulled into impromptu meetings or watercooler conversations that sap their time.
They are also able to focus on their work more, given that they do not have to endure the typical noise and chaos of an open plan office. A 2023 study by Buffer reveals that 70 per cent of employees find it easier to focus while working from home. While 65 per cent say it is easier to manage stress and 50 per cent say it is easier to avoid distractions. Additionally, working from home eliminates the need to commute to work. This means that employees to start their workday more relaxed and focused.
Working from home and improved work-life balance
One of the most notable benefits of working from home is the improvement in work-life balance. The traditional 9-to-5 office grind often leaves employees struggling to balance their professional and personal lives. In the 2023 study by Buffer, 67 per cent of employees said that the number one benefit of working from home is having the flexibility to choose how to spend their time
This flexibility to better manage their time results in employees experiencing reduced commuting stress and more time for family, hobbies and personal wellness. The removal of daily commutes can save significant time and money. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average one-way commute time in the United States is approximately 27 minutes. This translates to nearly one hour saved each day, which can be used for other purposes.
The cost savings of working from home
Working from home can lead to significant cost savings for both employees and employers. Employees can save money on commuting expenses, work attire and daily meals. A report by Global Workplace Analytics estimated that employees could save between $2,500 and $4,000 per year by working from home half of the time. Employers can also benefit from cost savings related to office space, utilities and other overhead expenses. IBM, for instance, saved approximately $50 million in real estate costs by reducing office space through remote work initiatives.
Working from home and improved health and well-being
Remote work can have a positive impact on an individual’s health and well-being. The elimination of the daily commute reduces exposure to pollution and the stress associated with traffic. Additionally, remote workers have more control over their work environment, which can lead to a reduction in workplace-related stressors. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2020 helps to prove this point. The study found that remote workers reported better mental health and less work-related stress compared to their in-office counterparts.
The environmental benefits of remote work
The environmental benefits of working from home can not be understated. The reduction in commuting means fewer cars on the road, leading to decreased greenhouse gas emissions and improved air quality. According to a study published in Nature Communications, global carbon dioxide emissions fell by 17% in April 2020 compared to the previous year. This was largely due to lockdowns and remote work arrangements. Furthermore, the reduced demand for office space can lead to decreased construction and energy consumption. This can have a positive impact on the overall carbon footprint of businesses.
Working from home benefits employers too
The benefits of working from home do not only pertain to workers. Remote work is transforming the hiring landscape by providing employers access to a global talent pool. Employers are no longer limited to hiring talent within their immediate geographic vicinity. This expanded access to a diverse talent pool can lead to increased innovation and problem-solving capabilities.
A study by Upwork found that 61.9 per cent of companies surveyed in 2020 were hiring more remote workers. This was primarily because they could tap into a broader talent base. This trend is likely to continue as organisations realize the advantages of accessing a global workforce. Remote work can also decrease employee turnover, which can be costly for businesses both in terms of recruitment expenses and lost productivity. Remote work can help reduce turnover rates by offering employees a flexible and accommodating work environment.
A study by Owl Labs found that remote workers are 13 per cent more likely to stay in their current job for the next five years compared to on-site workers. The flexibility and improved work-life balance associated with remote work contribute to higher job satisfaction and retention rates. Employers can also significantly reduce costs associated with maintaining physical office spaces, including rent, utilities, and office supplies. This can translate into substantial savings that can be reinvested in other areas of the business.
Australia lags behind other countries when it comes to working from home
Regrettably, Australia falls short in safeguarding an employee’s work from home entitlements compared to some nations. Several European Union member states are adapting their legislative frameworks to accommodate and regulate working from home. This includes:
In 2023, the Irish government passed the 2023 Work Life Balance and Miscellaneous Provisions Act. When this Act comes into effect, the nation’s employer must consider work from home requests made by employees.
Employers are also obliged to take the needs of the employee into account when considering a request. However, an employer is entitled to refuse a work from home request. The ground on which they can refuse a request are not contained within the Act.
Spain has taken significant strides in outlining the parameters of remote work through the enactment of Royal Decree-Law 28/2020. This groundbreaking law defines remote work as tasks performed by employees outside the traditional workplace. Further encompassing a minimum of 30 per cent of the workday over a period of at least three months.
Crucially, it upholds the principle that remote work should be a voluntary arrangement, benefiting both employees and employers It gives both parties the flexibility to revert to on-site work if desired. Spain’s legislation sets a robust framework for the evolution of remote work within its borders.
- The Netherlands
The Netherlands has long been recognized for its progressive approach to employment and work-life balance. In fact, the Dutch government encourages employers to embrace a hybrid working model on their website.
A new law set to take effect in 2023 does not make working from home a legal right for Dutch workers. However, it does give employees the legal right to request to work from home. And employers can only refuse a request if they have a good reason. For instance, if working from home will cause issues with the employee’s work schedule. Or if their work can not be performed outside of the office.
When will working from home become a legal right in Australia?
The debate over whether working from home should be a legal right for Australian workers is a complex and evolving one. And it could become one of the defining issues in Australian workplace relations in the coming years. Clearly, employees who have become accustomed to working from home are not willing to give up these privileges without a fight. And while remote work has not yet become a legal right in Australia, we have made progress towards it.
In June 2023, a major advancement in the fight for greater worker flexibility took place. Namely, the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Act 2022 took effect. This amended the Fair Work Act 2009 and bolstered the rights of employees when making a request for flexible working arrangements. The amendment now mandates employers to engage in open dialogues with their employees before reaching a decision on any proposed flexible work arrangement. Instead of a top-down approach, the legislative revisions encourage both parties to participate in constructive discussions aimed at reaching a mutually agreeable outcome.
Furthermore, employees can now challenge an employer’s rejection of their flexible work arrangement request through the Fair Work Commission. While this amendment does allow employees to request a working from home arrangement, it does not guarantee their right to it. However, this expansion of rights is a good sign that Australia is travelling in the right direction.That is towards recognising working from home as a right. Perhaps soon, the powers that be will recognise the importance that working from home has for millions of Australians. And as a result, new laws enshrining remote work as a legal right will be proposed.
Have you been unfairly dismissed?
Have you ever faced an unfair dismissal, discrimination or been treated unjustly for standing up for your workplace rights? Get in touch with A Whole New Approach for the support and guidance you need. Time is of the essence. You have just 21 days from the date of your dismissal to make a claim with the Fair Work Commission.
Our seasoned team of workplace representatives boasts over three decades of experience. Our impressive track record speaks volumes – we’ve aided thousands of employees in achieving justice. We possess an in-depth understanding of the Fair Work Commission, and our commitment to securing the best outcome for you is unwavering.
Your journey with us begins with a free initial consultation where all your questions can be answered without any obligation. What sets us apart is our fee structure – it operates on a contingency basis. In simple terms, you only pay us if we win your case. This ensures that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
If you have experienced an unfair dismissal or faced adverse action at work, do not delay.
Reach out to A Whole New Approach today at 1800 333 666 for the support you need.
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