By Robbie Sefton - Robbie Sefton has a dual investment in rural Australia as a farmer, producing wool, meat and grains, and as managing director of national marketing communications company Seftons.
If nothing else, COVID-19 has reinforced the immense value of digital capability.
Many businesses – including mine – were able to switch almost seamlessly from physical offices to online meetings and communication. My business has been operating as a ‘remote’ business model for 25 years, but as urban Australian’s catch up, I think that we as a nation have had time to adjust to working from home, the question is, are we as a nation going back to the office? And if we don’t, what are the implications for where people live, and how?
In the United States, a recent Gallup poll found that about 62 per cent of Americans are working remotely. Given a choice, nearly 60 per cent of these remote workers would continue working from home after pandemic measures have been lifted. The figures are probably not too much different in Australia.
Untethered from an office and a commute, people can be free to live where they wish. And it seems that in growing numbers, they wish to escape crowded, expensive cities. “The Australian Dream is heading out to the country,” according to Simon Pressley, head of research at Propertyology.
In the article linked to above, a glance at median house prices across Australia’s major urban centres shows that selling a house in one of the capital cities and buying almost anywhere else releases a lot of capital. In a few months, COVID-19 has pushed this possibility within reach for a whole lot of Australians. For regional centres, this is an opportunity to reshape their demographics.
But can employers benefit from the digitally-aided shift to remote working?
I’ve been having this discussion with a large group of non-executive directors of a wide spread of companies, some of them ASX-listed. Businesses are wondering about the cultural implications of shifting from workplaces based on bricks-and-mortar and physical presence to virtual workplaces, joined by the bits and bytes of digital communication.
There is a willingness to explore this mode of working, long talked about but now an involuntary reality. The key to making it work seems to come down to company culture – the ability to collaborate, management’s commitment to productive change, and the technical capability to make the necessary changes.
Not every business will be suited to releasing its employees from the office. Some won’t have the processes in place to make it work. But some businesses, with enough commitment from the executive and a culture that supports collaboration whether it is across a table or over the internet, will succeed very well.
In the bush, we should hope that a lot of companies use COVID-19 to successfully build a culture of remote working, and hopefully prompt a genuine migration out of the major cities. We’ve talked for a long time about the capability of digital communication to support people with global roles who want to live in the country. It’s happened slowly; hopefully now it happens fast.