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COVID-19, technology and opportunities for future work: some thoughts while 'working from home'

Many Australian workers have spent March becoming used to a new work routine - working from home. This is the new standard arrangement for much of the workforce in response to the pandemic. Almost anyone usually working in an office environment now has a home office set-up. The typical morning commute is now from the bed to the study via the kettle. I should know – my French Press has been getting a workout for more than a week now.

Tech workers, freelance writers and some other occupations are familiar with remote work. An internet connection and the right kinds of software are all they need to carry out a job from afar. Working from home may even become the norm for some once life is normal again.

Large tech companies are more than capable of achieving this kind of transformation. But what about the smaller companies now having to respond to the demands of a health crisis of this scale? AATIS developed policy guidelines to meet national work health and safety standards. An evaluation of technology requirements for each worker helped to tailor individual needs. We determined technology platforms we would need to create a 'virtual office space'. And then, we were all ready to work from home.

But for most SMEs this is no simple feat. For over 100 years the norm has been work carried out in a centralised physical location. Management has supervised employees in this way with great success. Productivity tied to office hours is standard in these kinds of workplace arrangement. Generally, the office cubicle or meeting room generate outputs of various kinds. This arrangement favours large, powerful corporations. Small supply chain firms must respond to the strategic planning of larger companies. As a result, they are often focused on the costs of maintaining pace with the big companies they depend on.

Technology can now solve the issue of creating flexibility for small companies. Online tools, digital platforms and web-based applications are available to various-sized businesses. As a result, working from home offers greater advantages to workers and workplaces. Remote work is more inclusive of workers. With preparation and planning, many workplaces can help employees work from home.

But what about the businesses employing tradespeople and apprentices? Companies employing tradespeople and apprentices face greater challenges in adapting work conditions. Many trades are hands-on and deal with specific areas of expertise. This makes it not so straightforward when developing remote working arrangements.

Many workers are losing jobs because of work lacking and closed training facilities. But businesses might consider engaging employees with training in new technologies. A recent RMIT study found that there is a general lack of understanding about Industry 4.0. Companies that embrace new knowledge can better prepare for the future of work.

Preparing for technology driven change means businesses can seize new opportunities. They can experiment with new technologies that their industries are not familiar with. Training organisations in the VET sector might offer online courses where possible. Elements of training curriculum could aid apprentices and trainees working from home. The Federal Government has now announced a support package for businesses and apprentices. Small businesses retaining their apprentices and trainees could use this for such opportunities. Investing in digital literacy and numeracy can help to embed new ways of doing digital work.

Businesses across the whole economy must grapple with the new challenges of Industry 4.0. They need to prepare for the kinds of work we’ll be doing into the future - often from home. Where trades-related workplace productivity often differs from office-based productivity, there are other opportunities. Productivity in some trades connects to different measures of output. A boilermaker's work productivity can transform with the application of digitally driven innovations. Doing so enhances tasks that are pivotal to carrying out these and other trades.

There are still downsides to remote working and working from home that will impact all kinds of work. Remote work can create psychological isolation as workers need workplace culture. Office banter, jokes and general socialisation helps to maximise creativity. Digital platforms can help social bonds stay in place throughout remote working.

Digital ways of educating, training and enhancing work through technologies can strengthen work. There may be light at the end of the tunnel with COVID-19. We should aim for workers to hold greater digital knowledge and skills when it's all over. Experimentation and innovation at the office and in the home can prepare us for the future of work.