Don’t know what day it is or who said what at the last meeting? Blame the coronavirus



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Celia Harris, Western Sydney University and Catherine J. Stevens, Western Sydney University

We are all living through a major historical event, a once-in-a-century pandemic that has radically changed how we work, learn, travel, socialise and spend our free time.

But for many of us juggling working from home, schooling at home and Friday night Zoom drinks, this is a period likely marked by memory failures. We forget who said what, who was at which meeting, what tasks and appointments we have, and even what day it is.

Why doesn’t our memory serve us well in this pandemic? Anxiety may be one explanation, but another reason comes from the way our memory works.

How we remember things

Recalling specific details from particular past events – such as who was at last Friday’s drinks, and who was there the week before that – is a complex mental feat.




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To do it, our memory relies on distinctive cues, both to recall past events accurately and to remember to perform future actions.

Distinctive cues for a particular event might include the physical surroundings, people, tastes, sounds, smells, or the weather.

People sitting outside at a cafe.
Cues from the location can help you remember who you met there.
Flickr/Alex Proimos, CC BY-ND

We remember which friend was at drinks because we recall details of the location – the bar we were at, where each person was sitting, what we were eating, and so on. This context helps us place the right person in that situation when we recall it later.

We remember who said what in a work meeting because we can visualise where they were sitting. We remember what day it is because we have landmarks in the week that remind us: karate lessons, choir practice, Friday afternoon traffic.

Same, same, same

Unfortunately, the pandemic has erased many of these cues. Many of us have instead been spending time sitting at our computer when ordinarily we might be at work or elsewhere. And this could leave us less able to distinguish events from one another.

A man on his laptop in a video hookup with work colleagues.
When home becomes the workplace everything tends to blur.
Shutterstock/Kate Kultsevych

Our memories are designed to focus on things that are new or distinctive. This means we are more likely to remember events when they are accompanied by a change in our environment, such as an overseas vacation. Conversely, we tend to merge events that are broadly similar.

This is useful as it helps us keep track of events in a systematic and useful way, without needing to perfectly record all the details of every event.

But in lockdown we don’t have physical transitions to differentiate one event from the next. We no longer walk between meetings or commute from the office to home. Many different events now share the same context (staying at home), which means your memory tends to blur them together.

What can we do about it?

Once we understand that our memories are going to find the current circumstances challenging, there are things we can do to improve the situation.

One way is to make an effort to create distinctive cues where possible. Can we all wear silly hats for our Friday night drinks (or board meetings)? Can we hold work meetings for different projects in different rooms of our house?

Ask someone different each time to chair recurring meetings? Going for a walk during meetings where we only need to listen can create a new set of physical cues to associate with what is being said.

Another way is to rely more heavily on our external memory systems: diaries, calendars, notes and records. Accepting that our internal memory might fall short means we can compensate by deliberately using tools and resources to store the information on our behalf.

These systems can later act as contextual memory cues too. For example, we can add a screenshot to our video meeting notes to record who was there and their location on the screen.

A written note to remind you to take a photo each day
A screenshot or a photo can help create a reminder of an event.
Flickr/Pete, CC BY

These kinds of recommendations are often given to people who experience memory failures for other reasons, such as brain injury.




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But similar principles might help all of us whose internal memory resources are not designed for spending our time almost exclusively in one place.

When embracing external memory systems, it is important to ensure they are readily accessible and always accurate, so we can trust them completely and be sure of getting the reminders we need.

Working from home is the new normal for many of us. Developing new strategies that support our memory performance might help reduce the number of things we forget, and stop our recollection of the COVID-19 times turning into an amorphous mush.The Conversation

Celia Harris, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, Western Sydney University and Catherine J. Stevens, Director, MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour & Development, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Far too many’ Victorians are going to work while sick. Far too many have no choice


Julian Teicher, CQUniversity Australia and Bernadine Van Gramberg

There is nothing new about people turning up to work when they’re sick. During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, many Melburnians had no option but to carry on working in defiance of public health advice, during an era before paid sick leave and with virtually no social safety net.

Today many employees are entitled to sick leave. And yet Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews this week complained that “far too many people” are going to work with COVID-19 symptoms, describing this as the “biggest driver” of the state’s persistently high rates of transmission.




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It’s easy to understand Andrews’ frustration. But while times have indeed changed for many employees since 1918, those in the casual and part-time workforce face the same stark choice – stay home or get paid – as their counterparts more than a century ago.

Casuals account for 25% of the Australian workforce, mainly in lower-paid jobs. This creates huge vulnerability, both in terms of these workers’ personal circumstances and in the public’s efforts to suppress COVID-19.

This pandemic has starkly revealed the consequences of casualisation in industries such as food distribution, meat processing, health care and private security. In April, a cluster of cases associated with the Cedar Meats abbatoir in Melbourne’s west was traced to casual workers employed by a Brisbane-based labour hire contractor.

Labour hire came under further scrutiny over the Victorian government’s decision to manage its hotel quarantine with the help of three private security firms, one of which subcontracted to other labour hire firms. One guard claims to have been hired via WhatsApp and said he received no training and was paid as little as A$18 per hour. Add to the mix alleged shortages of PPE and hand sanitiser, and the recipe for uncontrolled transmission begins to take shape.

Multiple jobs, no sick pay

The problem is compounded by the fact that many casual and part-time workers need more than one job to make ends meet. This means when they turn up to work despite being sick or waiting on test results, they are turning up sick to more than one workplace.

It gets worse still. Many people with more than one job work in the health sector, and particularly in aged care, where hourly wages are low. According to industry peak body Leading Age Services, 20-30% of the aged-care workforce have jobs in more than one facility.

Federal Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck has pledged to help aged-care providers cover the costs of employees’ entitlements so they can work at just one facility. But the problem is an entrenched one.

What help is available?

The Andrews government has offered various forms of assistance to encourage workers to stay home if unwell or being tested for COVID-19. But there are some exclusions.

Workers can claim a one-off payment of A$1,500 if unable to work during isolation, and a A$300 payment to cover isolation while awaiting COVID-19 test results, but only if they don’t already receive any other benefits or income and have already exhausted any paid leave entitlements. As the aged-care workforce is predominantly low-paid, an estimated 16% are already on some form of benefit and will likely miss out.

In April, the Fair Work Commission updated the terms of many industry awards to specifically include annual leave or unpaid leave for COVID-19-related absences. Yet this ruling did not cover casual workers or the 40% of workers on enterprise agreements, and unpaid leave would be an unpalatable option for those who have already used up their paid entitlement.

This week the Commission ordered paid COVID-19 leave in three health and aged-care awards to cover both ongoing and casual workers, although some employers have complained the measure will be difficult and costly to implement.




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Workforce casualisation is part of a wider move towards increasing “labour flexibility”. This is touted as a way for workers to enjoy more control over their lives, but in practice it allows employers to offer lower-paid, less secure jobs while freeing themselves of obligation to their employees and in some cases even receiving government subsidies into the bargain.

A classic example is private aged-care homes, which are staffed via layers of labour hire agencies, have received a federal government cash injection to help them deal with COVID-19, and are not bound by the same staffing conditions enforced in Victoria’s public aged-care facilities.

These facilities are in a full-blown public health crisis, accounting for a worrying proportion of Victoria’s COVID-19 cases. Yet their owners have argued that the government and even the elderly residents themselves should fund their workers’ pandemic leave.

It is a profound irony, given how “flexible” work practices have worsened the spread of COVID-19, that Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg are now calling for even more labour market flexibility as part of the process of economic recovery from the pandemic.The Conversation

Julian Teicher, Professor of Human Resources and Employment and Deputy Dean (Research), School of Business and Law, CQUniversity Australia and Bernadine Van Gramberg, Pro Vice Chancellor (Graduate Research and Research Training), Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In praise of the office: let’s learn from COVID-19 and make the traditional workplace better


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Geoff Plimmer, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington; Diep Nguyen, Edith Cowan University; Esme Franken, Edith Cowan University, and Stephen Teo, Edith Cowan University

Having had to rapidly adjust to working from home due to COVID-19, many people are now having to readjust to life back in the office. Many will have enjoyed aspects of what is sometimes called “distributed work”, but some may be dreading the return.

So is there a middle ground? Could hybrid work arrangements, known for boosting well-being and productivity, be a more common feature of workplaces in the future?

We say yes. Organisations need to recognise the valuable habits and skills employees have developed to work effectively from home during the lockdown. But they will need good strategies for easing the transition back into the physical workplace.

In doing so, they should aim for the best of both worlds — the flexibility of distributed work and the known benefits of the collaborative workplace.




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Good riddance to hot-desking

A good start would be a proper re-evaluation the two worst aspects of office life: crowded open-plan designs and so-called “hot-desking”.

Cramped shared offices and free-for-all hot-desking are both known for their negative impacts on quality of workplace life. The results are often interpersonal conflict, reduced productivity and higher rates of sickness.

Some organisations have already done away with hot-desking in an effort to improve physical and mental well-being. Acknowledging the evidence that tightly packed, cost-saving, open-plan office arrangements have not delivered what was promised should be another priority.

Hopefully, the impact of COVID-19 on business as usual will spell the end of these often poorly thought through management fads.

Work-life imbalance: how do companies help their employees and also boost productivity?
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Working from home can be isolating

At the same time, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The office still has its advantages, and there is research showing that working from home has clear disadvantages for employees and organisations when it is offered as a permanent arrangement.

One study involved a large (anonymous) US Fortune 100 technology firm. It began as a traditional survey of what it was like for individuals to work from home, but evolved into a study of the effect of what happened to the company’s community when working from home was normalised.




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The option of unrestricted distributed work meant employees simply stopped coming to work at the office. Many reported the well-known benefits of working from home, such as work-life balance and productivity.

They also reported a kind of “contagion effect”. As colleagues began to stay at home a tipping point arrived where fewer and fewer people opted to work in the office.

But this actually increased a sense of isolation among employees. It also meant the loss of opportunities to collaborate through informal or unplanned meetings. The chance to solve problems or be given challenging assignments were lost as well.

Those who participated in the study said social contact and productively interacting with colleagues was the main reason they wanted to come to work. Without it there was no real point. The research raises the possibility of a net loss in well-being if everyone were to work remotely.

Well-being and job satisfaction depend on a range of factors, including having clear goals, social contact and the structure of the traditional working day. Of course, jobs can also be toxic if there is too much structure. But fully distributed work may not provide the support, identity and community that offices provide for some.

Nor is technology always adequate when it comes to the subtle value of face-to-face catch ups. Five minute water-cooler talks and post-meeting debriefs still matter for both productivity, social contact and cohesion.

A different kind of management: motivating and maintaining morale in a distributed workplace requires new skills.
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Management has to adapt too

None of which is to suggest there are not identifiable advantages of distributed work and the flexible workplace. As many of us discovered during the lockdown, just avoiding the daily commute helped with lowering stress and better work-life balance. Choosing when we worked was attractive too.

But this requires better management skills. Distributed workers require different (often better) engagement strategies, including the ability to build mutual trust.




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Research into how best to manage the health and safety of distributed workers has found that some leaders simply can’t adapt to the digital environment. Trust, consideration and communicating a clear vision or sense of purpose matter more for distributed workers than for those in the traditional office.

Recognition, reward, development and advancement in a distributed working environment will all need special attention. So too will ways to deal with people not pulling their weight, maybe because of too much time on social media.

Even the simple benefits of spontaneous humour in meetings or informal team interactions are easily lost with “e-leadership”, so new ways of building and maintaining morale are vital.

This is not an either/or question. Rather, the challenge is to strike a new balance — how to retain the benefits of distributed work while maintaining the sense of community that comes from personal interaction in the office.The Conversation

Geoff Plimmer, Senior lecturer in Human Resource Management, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington; Diep Nguyen, Lecturer, Edith Cowan University; Esme Franken, Lecturer in Management, Edith Cowan University, and Stephen Teo, Professor of Work and Performance, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Heading back to the office? Here’s how to protect yourself and your colleagues from coronavirus



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Lisa Bricknell, CQUniversity Australia and Dale Trott, CQUniversity Australia

One of the most profound ways the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our lives has been in the way we work. For people lucky enough to keep their jobs, and for those of us in professions where it’s possible, working from home has become the new normal.

Australia’s success in “flattening the curve” means restrictions are now being lifted. With this, many employers are bringing their staff back into the office, or at least contemplating doing so.

But as the current outbreaks in Victoria show, it’s dangerous to think we’re now safe from the threat of COVID-19.

So, what do we need to consider as we take those first tentative steps back into the office?




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First, how does the virus spread?

While there’s a lot we still don’t know about SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, we do know it spreads most effectively from person to person in droplet form. Infected people emit these droplets when they sneeze, cough, and even speak.

Those droplets can be transmitted directly through the air — say when an infectious person coughs in the direction of someone else close by — or they can settle on surfaces, where they can remain viable for hours.

The virus enters the body of a non-infected person through contact with mucous membranes in the nose, mouth or eyes and attaches to cells in the upper respiratory tract to establish infection.

Many of us are keen to get back to the office.
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What does this mean for office workers?

In many workplaces, employees share a small office space, work in an open-plan office, or use “hot desks” that are shared between several different employees on different shifts.

Workers in these situations are often required to work for long periods in environments that make it hard to maintain the recommended 4m² distancing rule.

This combination — several hours spent in close contact — increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission. This is illustrated by an outbreak in an open-plan call centre in Seoul, where more than 43% of workers contracted COVID-19 during February and March.




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Considerations for employers

First, each employee in a shared office should be able to have at least 4m² to themselves. If this isn’t possible, it would be a good idea to stagger staff or allow them to continue working from home for now.

Second, think about airflow. Small offices often have insufficient airflow to dilute the virus, and, if an infectious person is present, could end up with high concentrations of viral particles over the course of an hour or so.

Conversely, higher rates of airflow combined with poor ventilation can also lead to infection, as droplets can be carried further.

So where possible, increase ventilation and air exchange in open-plan workspaces. Increasing the ratio of fresh air intake to recirculated air can reduce the concentration of virus particles in air conditioned spaces. Even simply opening windows can reduce viral spread.

Ramping up cleaning practices is a must.
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Third, cleaning protocols need to be increased. Where once a twice weekly visit from a contracted cleaner to vacuum the floors, empty the bins and quickly wipe over surfaces was considered sufficient, during COVID-19 you need to ensure a thorough daily clean of all surfaces.

Frequently touched surfaces, such as desks, light switches, door handles, phones, staircase railings, touch screens, keypads, taps and toilets should be given special attention and may require more frequent cleaning.




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Fourth, if a worker becomes sick with respiratory symptoms, isolate them from other staff and arrange for them to go home. Advise them to get tested for COVID-19 and not return to work until they have a negative result.

Similarly, reinforce the message, “if you’re sick, get tested and don’t come to work”. Now more than ever, the culture of “soldiering on” while unwell puts others at risk.

Finally, you might also consider asking employees to wear face masks at work. Face masks are unlikely to protect the person wearing them but can limit the disease being spread by coughs and sneezes.

Considerations for employees

First, you should clean equipment like keyboards, phones and mice regularly, and definitely between each user if desks are shared. Simply wipe your desk and equipment with a domestic spray cleaner.

Second, the best protection against the virus is personal hygiene. Washing your hands with soap and water offers excellent protection against SARS-CoV-2. When you can’t wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser instead.

You should wash or sanitise your hands regularly throughout the day, especially any time you touch anything you suspect someone else has recently been in contact with.

Both employers and employees can reduce the risk COVID-19 will spread in an office environment.
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Third, maintain a distance of 1.5m from other people to protect yourself from airborne droplets.

Fourth, practise good respiratory hygiene by coughing and sneezing into a tissue or the crook of your elbow. This prevents viral particles spreading over surfaces and toward people around you.

Lastly, if you have any symptoms, don’t go to work. Get tested as soon as possible and stay at home until you receive the results.




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The Conversation


Lisa Bricknell, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Health, CQUniversity Australia and Dale Trott, Lecturer, Environmental Health, CQUniversity Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A four-day working week could be the shot in the arm post-coronavirus tourism needs



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Jarrod Haar, Auckland University of Technology

When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said recently, “I’ve heard lots of people suggesting we should have a four-day week”, she inevitably ignited debate.

Ardern was not, as some critics seemed to assume, just flying a kite. She was responding to various ideas about how to boost domestic tourism. Like the hospitality industry, tourism has been economically ravaged by the COVID-19 lockdown, so her remarks received a lot of coverage.

But Ardern added a caveat that received rather less attention: “Ultimately, that really sits between employers and employees.”

This suggests it is unlikely to become official government policy, but rather something businesses might choose to adopt if it made sense.

The idea has already gained traction in Australia and America, highlighting a widespread interest in new ways of organising work. Ultimately, Ardern was suggesting the end of lockdown might present organisations with a chance to do things differently.

But could it work? How would organisations do it? And what would be the benefits?

One company has shown the way already

In New Zealand, the four-day week was pioneered in 2018 by Andrew Barnes, now a champion of the concept after trialling and then adopting it for his finance company, Perpetual Guardian. Employees now work a four-day week on their previous five-day salary. They work normal eight-hour days, not simply longer hours to make up a normal 40-hour week.




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Perpetual Guardian calls it the “100-80-100” model: 100% productivity for 80% time at 100% salary.

Research showed employees reported significantly better well-being than before the trial, including a better work-life balance and lower job stress. They were more engaged and reported higher job satisfaction.

Managers reported the same level of productivity. Furthermore, management found their teams were more creative, more helpful, and provided better customer service.

Overall it was a win for employees and their employer.

Perpetual Guardian’s Andrew Barnes.
Author provided

From my own research I’ve identified a few key factors that determine success. Firstly, it needs leadership support. Having a leader who can champion the adoption of a four-day trial is vital.

Barnes recommends a trial as the first step to discovering whether it is an option for your organisation or not. As evidence of the benefits builds (for example, Microsoft in Japan reported a 40% increase in productivity), employees might want to lobby their managers to give it a go.

Employee engagement is vital

My research also showed employees are central to making a four-day week work. Ultimately they have to create better ways to work – for example, collectively identifying what was previously wasted time and seeking solutions. In one case, a team told me they reduced a two-hour weekly meeting to 30 minutes a fortnight.




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How to reschedule the week is another factor: organisations might adopt a fixed day off – such as Melbourne firm Versa, which chose Wednesday. Or they might rotate the day off among team members.

The latter approach requires a strong creative focus on maintaining team productivity. But there is no one way to make it work. While Perpetual Guardian operates 32-hour weeks, Versa works a 37.5-hour week in four days.

What is most important is that workers are empowered to think about productivity and wastage and to make their work more efficient and effective. Even if an organisation trials the four-day week but chooses not to adopt it, it will still gain useful insights into working methods and productivity.

Beyond the benefits to employers (more focused and attentive staff, better customer relations) and employees (enhanced well-being and engagement), there are potentially wider social benefits too.

More leisure time equals greater opportunity

Reduced commuting times due to fewer days in the office mean fewer cars on the road, less congestion and lower CO₂ emissions. Offices use less power and, if an organisation is growing, potentially feel less pressure to expand if a rotating day off is in place.

If supporting tourism is the goal, business owners might be encouraged to close for one day a week, ideally a Friday or Monday, perhaps in split shifts if they need to remain operating five days a week. This would maximise people’s ability to plan a three-day weekend of travel – potentially within a “trans-Tasman bubble”.




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Were Australian organisations to adopt a four-day week too it could significantly increase two-way traffic, enhancing both economies.

Paying workers 100% of their salary for 80% of a traditional working week while maintaining productivity would, in theory at least, increase opportunities for discretionary spending.

Combined with a patriotic call to use the extra time to support hospitality and tourism, it could align with the prime minister’s desire to find innovative ways to stimulate economic activity.

Healthier, happier and more productive workers helping other businesses stay viable? That sounds like a win-win for all.The Conversation

Jarrod Haar, Professor of Human Resource Management, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

If more of us work from home after coronavirus we’ll need to rethink city planning



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John L Hopkins, Swinburne University of Technology

We have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of people working from home as directed by governments and employers around the world to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

If, as some expect, people are likely to work from home more often after the pandemic, what will this mean for infrastructure planning? Will cities still need all the multibillion-dollar road, public transport, telecommunications and energy projects, including some already in the pipeline?




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World’s largest work-from-home experiment

Remote working was steadily on the rise well before COVID-19. But the pandemic suddenly escalated the trend into the “world’s largest work-from-home experiment”. Many people who have had to embrace remote working during the pandemic might not want to return to the office every day once restrictions are lifted.

They might have found some work tasks are actually easier to do at home. Or they (and their employers) might have discovered things that weren’t thought possible to do from home are possible. They might then question why they had to go into the workplace so often in the first place.

But what impact will this have on our cities? After all, many aspects of our cities were designed with commuting, not working from home, in mind.




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Stress test for NBN and energy networks

From a telecommunications perspective, the huge increase in people working from home challenges the ways in which our existing networks were designed.

Data from Aussie Broadband show evening peak broadband use has increased 25% during the shutdown. Additional daytime increases are expected due to home schooling with term 2 starting.

Research by the then federal Department of Communications in 2018 estimated the average Australian household would need a maximum download speed of 49Mbps during peak-use times by 2026. If more people work from home after COVID-19, the size and times of peak use might need to be recalculated.

Another factor not modelled by the government research was the potential impact of an increase in uploads. This is a typical requirement for people working from home, as they now send large files via their suburban home networks, rather than their office networks in the city.




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Recent research by Octopus Energy in the UK has found domestic energy use patterns have also changed since COVID-19. With more people working from home, domestic energy use in the middle of the day is noticeably higher. Some 30% of customers use an average of 1.5kWh more electricity between 9am and 5pm.

Conversely, data from the US show electricity use in city centres and industrial areas has declined over the same period.

Less commuting means less congestion

Closer to home, new data from HERE Technologies illustrate just how much traffic congestion has eased.

Thursday afternoons from 5-5.15pm are normally the worst time of the week for traffic congestion in Melbourne. Last week the city’s roads recorded the sort of free-flowing traffic usually seen at 9.30am on a Sunday. Just 1.8% of Melbourne’s major roads were congested, a fraction of the usual 19.8% at that time.

All of Australia’s major cities are experiencing similar reductions. Transurban has reported traffic is down 43% on the Melbourne airport toll road, 29% on its Sydney roads and 27% in Queensland.

Passengers are also staying away from public transport in droves. For example, South Australian government statistics for Adelaide show passenger numbers have slumped by 69% for buses, by 74% for trains and by 77% for trams, compared with this time last year.




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What does this mean for infrastructure planning?

With these trends in mind, future investment in roads, public transport, energy and telecommunications will need to consider the likelihood of more people working from home.

Prior to COVID-19, Melbourne research found 64% of city workers regularly worked from home, but usually only one day a week, even though 50% of their work could be done anywhere. While the changes we are now seeing are a result of extreme circumstances, it is not inconceivable that, on average, everybody could continue to work from home one extra day per week after the pandemic. Even this would have significant implications for long-term urban planning.

The most recent Australian Census data show 9.2 million people typically commute to work each day. If people worked from home an average of one extra day per week, this would take 1.8 million commuters off the roads and public transport each day.

Many road and public transport projects will be based on forecasts of continuing increases in commuter numbers. If, instead, people work from home more often, this could call into question the need for those projects.

Areas outside city centres would also require more attention, as working from home creates a need for more evenly distributed networks of services for the likes of energy and telecommunications. Interestingly, such a trend could support long-term decentralisation plans, like those outlined in Melbourne’s Metropolitan Planning Strategy. And if such change encourages more people to live away from the big cities, it also could help to make housing more affordable.




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The Conversation


John L Hopkins, Innovation Fellow, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Goodbye to the crowded office: how coronavirus will change the way we work together



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Rachel Morrison, Auckland University of Technology

As lockdowns are relaxed around the world and people return to their workplaces, the next challenge will be adapting open office spaces to the new normal of strict personal hygiene and physical distancing.

While the merits and disadvantages of open plan and flexible workspaces have long been debated, the risk they posed of allowing dangerous, highly contagious viruses to spread was rarely (if ever) considered.

But co-working spaces are characterised by shared areas and amenities with surfaces that need constant cleaning. Droplets from a single sneeze can travel over 7 metres, and surfaces within pods or booths, designed for privacy, could remain hazardous for days.

Even in countries such as Australia and New Zealand where efforts to “flatten the curve” have been successful and which have relatively easily controlled borders, it’s fair to ask whether communal workspaces might be a thing of the past.

Perhaps – if vigilant measures are in place – some countries can continue to embrace collaborative, flexible, activity-based workplace designs and the cost savings they represent. But this is unlikely to be the case in general in the coming years. Even if some organisations can operate with minimal risk there will be an expectation they provide virus-free workplaces should there be future outbreaks.

Working from home

Worldwide, there will undoubtedly be fewer people in the office – now workers have tried working from home, they may find they like it. And organisations may have little choice but to limit the numbers of workers on-site. Staggered shifts, enforced flexitime, and 24/7 operations may become the norm, along with working remotely.

Video meetings, even within the same workplace, could become the new normal.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

The open plan model has been criticised for everything from lowered productivity, less interpersonal interaction, antisocial behaviour, reduced well-being, too much distraction, a lack of privacy, and making workers feel exposed and monitored.




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But it has also been shown to improve cooperation and communication. Whether these innovative spaces are within a large organisation or are communal workspaces where start-ups, freelancers, and contractors can sit together (such as GridAKL in Auckland or The Commons in Sydney), their popularity is undeniable. The sense of community and the ability to share knowledge and ideas are key attractions of co-working.




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Riding the shared/flexi-space wave have been companies such as WeWork – popularising communal tables within co-working hubs and providing “pods” for private conversations. But there is now little doubt WeWork will be an early casualty of COVID-19. Already in financial trouble before the pandemic, WeWork will cut more than 1,000 jobs this month.

But what about the thousands of organisations that retooled their densely populated work environments to encourage flexibility, activity-based work, and movement within and between spaces?

James Muir, CEO of sustainability start-up Crunch and Flourish has no doubt using co-working offices in central Auckland has been a positive: “We benefited from the great community at GridAKL,” he says. “And before long we were collaborating with other start-ups on marketing and design as well as getting great advice from more experienced entrepreneurs.”

Shared workspace company WeWork is expected to be another casualty of COVID-19.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

Missing social cues online

Those fortuitous conversations and information exchanges will inevitably become rarer as we avoid the risk of interpersonal contact – and they are almost impossible to mimic online. Personal interaction (even within the office) will be replaced with the already familiar virtual video meeting – or even, as TIME magazine reports, holograms and avatars.




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However, communication is more challenging when conducted remotely. We are more persuasive in person, particularly if we know the person. Being on a video call is more draining than a face-to-face chat because workers must concentrate harder to process non-verbal cues such as tone of voice and body language. Anxiety about technology is another barrier, and some find lack of eye contact in virtual meetings (mimicked by staring at the “dot” of your own camera) disquieting.

New norms of hand sanitising, cleaning equipment and wearing masks will emerge. Handshaking or friendly pecks on the cheek may soon be things of the past, as will family photos and mementos on desks, if they prove too difficult to sanitise.

Aside from behaviours, policies, and attitudes, the physical office will need to change. Already, a company in the Netherlands has coined the term the “6 feet office”, aiming to redesign workspaces to help workers maintain social distancing at work.

We may even see the return of the high-walled cubicle, and the introduction of wide corridors and one-way foot traffic, already found in some hospitals. Activity-based work and hot-desks (which oblige people to move throughout the day) could be replaced by assigned desk arrangements where workers sit back to back.

New builds might incorporate touch-free technology such as voice-activated lifts, doors and cabinets, touchless sinks and soap dispensers, improved air venting and UV lights to disinfect surfaces overnight.

In the meantime, will James Muir resume running Crunch and Flourish from his co-working office after the pandemic? “Yes,” he says, “once the risk of any new cases is under control.”The Conversation

Rachel Morrison, Associate Professor, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New ways of ‘being together apart’ can work for us and the planet long after coronavirus crisis passes



Oxfam/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Andrew Glover, RMIT University and Tania Lewis, RMIT University

Most major corporate, academic and other networking events have been cancelled because of the risks of spreading the coronavirus while travelling or at the events themselves. This flurry of cancellations has even spawned a literally titled website: https://www.isitcanceledyet.com/. But the changes in behaviour now being forced upon us might benefit the planet in the long term as we find and get used to other ways of holding meetings.

The COVID-19 pandemic is driving the development of these alternatives to physical travel and meetings much more strongly than climate change had to date. With many countries closing their borders, limiting domestic travel and imposing restrictions on large gatherings, few conferences are likely to proceed in the coming months of 2020.




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Old conference model is unsustainable

Traditional face-to-face conferences tend to be rather unsustainable affairs. Participants often fly from around the world to attend – usually accompanied by some carbon-intensive conference tourism along the way. For people who take just one long-haul flight per year, air travel is likely to be the single largest contributor to their carbon footprint.

If you make a long-haul flight to attend a meeting once a year that’s enough to greatly increase your carbon footprint.
Rommel Canlas/Shutterstock

The dramatic decline in conferences and other meetings is likely to contribute to a significant drop in carbon emissions from air travel in 2020.

Conferences and meetings have come to be regarded as important parts of professional life. They allow us to connect with people and ideas in our field, and can be opportunities to advance new knowledge.

But with so many of us effectively “grounded”, what are the alternatives to attending traditional conferences and meetings?

Digital conferencing on the rise

The use of digital conferencing platforms has skyrocketed in the past few weeks as more and more people work from home and travel is restricted.

Leading US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden even held a “virtual town hall” meeting recently as part of his campaign, although many users reported technical glitches and low-quality video plagued the experience.

Conferences are even taking place in virtual reality settings. These dedicated online conferencing environments are designed to mimic the venues conferences are often held in. These online events have large auditoriums, smaller “breakout rooms” and even socialising spaces to meet other participants through the use of digital avatars.

However, online conferencing need not be held in immersive 3D environments to be successful.

Exploring alternative formats

Most traditional conferences tend to be quite similar in format. They’re usually in a fixed location and run for two to five days. Presenters speak in front of live audiences on a fixed schedule.

Some digital conferences try to mimic this format, but others are trying to use the technology to open up the possibility for new types of event formats.

The “nearly carbon-neutral” conference model was initially developed to reduce the emissions associated with flying to conferences. Presentations are broadcast online over about two weeks. Participants can interact with presentations via accompanying text channels. The lectures and text messages are preserved online, creating an accessible archive.

Some events are being broadcast on the website Twitch. It’s a popular streaming platform where online gamers broadcast to – and interact with – surprisingly large audiences. This shows how conference organisers planning online events may need to look to communities who have been connecting and interacting “at a distance” long before any travel bans came into force.

The gaming community has led the way in developing mass meetings online.
Facebook

Do we even need video?

It’s common for conferences and other events to have Twitter “backchannels” where participants post short messages about their experiences of attending the event to a dedicated hashtag. People who are unable to attend can view these messages to get a sense of “being there”.

The “Twitter conference” has taken this a step further. The digital event just involves participants posting on a dedicated hashtag at a set point in time.

Events like this show conferences can be stripped down to what they are ultimately about: connecting with people and ideas that we’re interested in.

One size won’t fit all

It’s unlikely any one event format will suit every purpose. Organisers will need to be creative in how they schedule and plan events. They’ll have to consider what they want to accomplish and what types of participation they want to have.

Digital conferencing may even give less mobile groups – people with disabilities or caring responsibilities or who are averse to flying – an opportunity to attend events they might have been unable to take part in before.

Ultimately, the restrictions on air travel and social gatherings will force us to adapt to new ways of “being together apart”, both professionally and personally. We may not be able to share a conference space with our peers and collaborators, but we can still connect with them. We might even learn more about what type of travel is really necessary, with the invaluable benefit of reducing the pace of climate change.The Conversation

Andrew Glover, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, RMIT University and Tania Lewis, Co-Director of the Digital Ethnography Research Centre and Professor of Media and Communication, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Which jobs are most at risk from the coronavirus shutdown? 


Jeff Borland, University of Melbourne

The immediate impact of the coronavirus shutdown is striking in its magnitude, its speed and its concentration on a small set of industries.

My attempt to identify where the virus and the shutdown will have the biggest effect suggests that in February 2020 about 2.7 million workers were employed in the most exposed industries.

And while it won’t be possible to know for sure until April 16 when we get data from the Bureau of Statistics on the labour force in March, I believe it’s reasonable to think the jobs of about 900,000 are already under threat.

Which jobs are most at risk?

In the table below I list those whom I think are most at risk.

For one group of about 1.4 million workers – primarily in industries involving eating out, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and air travel – the loss of work is the inevitable result of government shutdowns.

February 2020,
ABS 6291.0.55.003

Another group, comprising about 900 thousand workers, are in retail trades (non-food) and personal services, where the effect on jobs is coming from consumers cutting spending apart from on essential items.

February 2020,
ABS 6291.0.55.003

Workers in both at-risk groups are predominantly young. More than half are under 35 years of age. Six out of seven are employees. About one in every seven is an owner/manager or works in a family business.

A slightly higher proportion are female than male. They are evenly split between full-time and part-time.

Some industries will grow

Some industries are seeing rapid increases in demand due to the coronavirus. They include the retail grocery trade and associated logistic services, and the supply of office essentials needed to work at home.

In a relatively short period there is also likely to be an increase in demand from the health care and health services industries.

Other areas where increased demand seems likely are the home delivery of goods bought online, cleaning services and services usually undertaken by volunteers and government agencies who are occupied dealing with COVID-19.

The total workforce will shrink

So far there has been little impact of the supply of workers, but it will happen.

It is beginning to occur as schools and childcare centres close and workers withdraw in order to care for their children, and it is accentuated by parents not wanting to risk outsourcing the task to grandparents.

In the coming weeks, there will be further hits to labour supply as illness from COVID-19 causes workers to need to take leave and other workers withdraw to provide care for family members who become ill.




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It is difficult to be precise about the magnitude of withdrawal from the labour market, but it is potentially large.

To start with, most of the impact is likely to come from withdrawal for caring or to avoid illness.

As an indication of the potential scale of withdrawal, in 2019 there were 1.21 million families with children aged from 0-9 years in which either a sole parent or both parents were in paid work.




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In 2016 there were 634,500 people aged 65 to 84 doing voluntary work.

Workers becoming ill might also have a substantial impact on labour supply.

Under a (hopefully pessimistic) scenario that COVID-19 continues its current rate of growth over the next three weeks, with those infected in the previous two weeks then unable to work, this would be about 67,500 persons out of work due to illness.

COVID-19 has already had a dramatic effect on employment – that much is evident from news images of queues at Centrelink.

Further impacts are almost certain in coming weeks.

February 2020,
ABS 6291.0.55.003

The scale and speed of what’s happening is creating the most serious labour market policy challenge of the post-war era.The Conversation

Jeff Borland, Professor of Economics, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.