White paper a flying start: buckle up

Working more from home will become vital.

The way we can work is changing, so it is crucial we adapt to the implications, writes Tony Featherstone.

Picture this: within about a decade, another million or so Australians will work for themselves. Many more who work for big companies will telework from home, at least for part of the week. Another group will operate as fly-in, fly-out workers, moving between interstate and offshore projects.

Welcome to the future of work, a journey that promises to be equal parts thrilling and terrifying, when one considers how little is being done to prepare for such powerful long-term trends.

What's your view? How will the workplace change in the next decade or two? What big trends will redefine work for millions of Australians? Are we doing enough to prepare for them now?

Consider Asia's growth. The federal government's Australia in the Asian Century white paper, released in October, presented a terrific road map for this country to prosper in the greatest trend of them all: the rise and rise of Asia.

But what will become of the recommendations? Will it become a grandiose government document that grabs headlines and then collects dust on the shelf, or will real policy be developed to put meat on the white paper's bones and help Australian business win in Asia?

It is obvious that more Australians will spend a much bigger chunk of their working life flying back and forth to Asia in the next decade (much like resource-sector workers who live far from their job site do now): business people, professional service providers, academics, senior public servants ... the list goes on.

How are we planning for this incredible trend?

Are we creating a more mobile workforce, or reducing labour mobility through outdated state taxes and poor transport infrastructure planning? How can we be expected to fly in and out of Asia when travelling between Sydney and Melbourne in the same day is often a nightmare because of our hopeless airports and airlines?

What about potential social problems if more people spend more time away from their children?

Consider how the Asian Century will affect how we study. Today, hundreds of thousands of Asian students live and study in Australia - a great achievement for our higher-education sector. When another billion people in Asia enter the middle classes within two decades, my guess is that we will be the ones increasingly travelling there to teach, and many more Australian students will study at universities abroad. Again, how are we preparing for this trend?

What about teleworking? Working more from home will become vital as the population grows and our capital cities become overwhelmed by traffic because of poor transport infrastructure planning and the lack of a clear national infrastructure policy.

More companies will encourage teleworking to cut costs and boost productivity, and workers will embrace it for lifestyle reasons. As super-fast internet becomes a reality, it will increasingly seem odd that so many people trudge back and forth to town each day for work, sometimes losing hours in the process and adding to city congestion and pollution, when the same work can be done from home in far less time.

As with the Asia trend, there seems to be plenty of talk but not enough action to make teleworking a bigger feature of the workforce. A National Telework Week is better than nothing, but we need real policy, not marketing events, to capitalise on teleworking's potential.

It's such a no-brainer: in time, more people working from home for all or part of the week means a happier, healthier, more productive workforce; fewer cars on the road, less-congested cities and less pollution; and more-vibrant suburbs and communities during the working week.

Imagine if local councils showed initiative and tried to connect home-based workers in their area by creating business hubs and shared workspaces. Or if we thought more about the home-based work trend in building design in the city and suburbs.

Many of these home-based workers will run a business. It's not hard to see the 2.1 million small businesses in Australia (at June 2011) rising to 3 million in a decade or two as more people branch out. Again, what are we doing to plan for this workforce change?

Obviously, these changes will not affect all workers. The majority will never fly back and forth to Asia, telework from home, or start a business. But these and other social and economic trends will redefine how millions of Australians work and interact in the next two decades.

We need more debate on what the workforce will look like by 2025, and some genuine policy to help us get there. We'll be there before you know it, and by then it will be too late if Australia continues to talk about, rather than act on, these big workforce trends.

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