Pre-COVID, the Illawarra, Western Sydney and the Central Coast formed a well-documented commuter belt around Sydney. But now peak-hour trains are quiet, suburban shopping strips are thriving mid-week and for that we can thank those of us working from home in our trackies. Can this be the new norm beyond COVID?
For 34,473 of us at last count, the cost of the Illawarra lifestyle is a commute to somewhere outside our region. And for 22,830 of us, that is a commute to Sydney which as we know is at least 90 minutes away by road or rail. That's three hours per day dedicated to travelling, and for those on the train most of that journey is without internet, an inalienable human right in 2020.
Sure, not everybody who commutes is doing so against their will. Their motivations can include a higher salary, a more prestigious job or even just some more "me time". But there is a real cost to the concentration of jobs in Sydney and we do not want to become a hollowed-out dormitory.
In the Illawarra, concerted efforts by Invest Wollongong and other stakeholders have been made over many years to grow local jobs through investment attraction initiatives. We've had some success; most notably the Australian Taxation Office opening in Wollongong in 2013 and tech company NEC opening its Customer Service Management Centre at the Innovation Campus in 2016 creating 100 jobs.
However this is hard yards; a slow way to create new jobs. Pre-COVID, turning the tide through working from home was a difficult ask of employers. Even though the technology to facilitate remote work has been around for a decade, bosses are naturally dubious and nothing seemed to be changing until COVID happened.
Now, our Regional Economic Recovery Taskforce, convened to assess and address major COVID-related economic harm, has agreed that the key area of opportunity for the Illawarra from the pandemic is the decentralisation of work.
If we launch a post-COVID campaign to convince employers to decentralise work to our region, based on clear evidence, I believe we can realise three key benefits.
The first is about reducing the number of us who leave each day for work, and therefore the escaped expenditure that hurts our local businesses. Whether it is through buying our coffees and lunch, using city dry cleaners, doctors, other services and of course the money we spend on after work drinks in Sydney, this was estimated as costing Illawarra businesses $400 million per year back in 2013, just for retail.
The second is the cost to the community of this time spent on the commute. A 2014 report for the Illawarra Business Chamber by PwC found that it costs our residents and businesses around half a billion dollars per year to access jobs and trading opportunities in Sydney. Without action, PwC found the time and out-of-pocket costs are expected to increase to at least $690 million per annum by 2031. This time away from family and friends for a commuter is a cost to our society as well as our economy.
The third is the productivity dividend. Anecdotal evidence about the COVID working from home productivity spike is mounting up. A survey of over 1000 people undertaken for NBN Co found that 81 per cent of those working from home found it had positively changed the way they think about managing work/life flexibility and 67 per cent said they expected to continue working from home once the pandemic abates. And a global workforce survey of 3000 people from April this year found 70 per cent of managers are "just as satisfied or better" with their workers' performance.
Companies won't make decisions about their employees' working arrangements that would see them worse off, so we need to prove the benefits to their bottom line in dollar terms.
That is something that the Illawarra Business Chamber will be looking to address in detail soon as part of a significant piece of research.
Decentralising work won't mean working from home in every case. We should be agnostic about how this occurs.
For starters, not everyone has the peaceful home life required and others actually enjoy interacting with their colleagues.
There will be opportunities for regional working hubs, where we can join our locally based colleagues while being close to home, and connect via video link to the office.
Not every job can be decentralised obviously, and certainly not be performed from home. Of our 22,830 commuters, 62 per cent of them are "white collar" workers who are more likely to be able to work remotely. But it is not only they who would benefit from their jobs being decentralised, but all the local businesses who receive their custom during the week.
The other 38 per cent are technicians, trades, salespeople, machinery operators and drivers and labourers. To reduce their commutes, we need to persist with industry attraction measures, ensuring the Illawarra is open to new employers and cutting red tape when need be.
We need to use the COVID crisis as the burning platform to turn the jobs tide in our favour, for the benefit of both our economy and our community.
- Adam Zarth is the Executive Director of the Illawarra Business Chamber and Illawarra First.