Half of Australia’s working population are now identified as ‘digital workers’, using the internet to work from home or on the go, with new research finding it actually enhances the productivity of employees through increased flexibility.
Research released this morning from the Australian Communications and Media Authority found as of May this year there were 5.6 million adults who used the internet to work away from the office outside ‘working hours’, or to work from home rather than coming into the office.
At the time of the research, 5.6 million people composed 51% of the total number of employed Australians.
The percentage increased significantly when considering workers with a university qualification, with 70% saying they’d worked from home.
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The study, which also had a focus on SMEs, found 39% of employers with less than 20 staff allowed their employees to work from home at least one day a week.
Businesses with 20 to 199 employees were more likely than small business to allow employees to work from home, with the percentage increasing to 55%.
The ACMA communications analysis manager Joseph Di Gregorio told SmartCompany it’s likely more and more people will become digital workers.
“Putting it into context, Australians are doing more online, be it commerce, entertainment or interacting with businesses and government, so working is just becoming part of that story,” he says.
“It’s a broader picture with regards to the digital economy, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers do increase. The internet is no longer on the periphery; it’s a core part of everyday life.”
Di Gregorio says the majority of digital workers at the moment come from industries where employees have long needed to be mobile.
“If you look at the nature of the industries where this is most popular, it’s communications and property and business services sectors, so having a lot of people on the go is a natural part of those work environments,” he says.
“If you remove the internet, they would probably be a very mobile group of people anyway, so the internet in many ways is actually just keeping them in touch with their resources and improving their productivity.”
The study of 2400 households and 1500 SMEs found the highest number of digital workers were from capital cities, aged 35 to 44, were male, employed full-time and had a university qualification.
Almost three million people worked away from the office at least two days a week and 4.6 million worked from home when outside of the office.
The survey found the major benefits of working from home were increased flexibility (55%) and more opportunities to get work done (30%), and 53% of digital workers identified no negatives of working from home.
Of those who did perceive some negatives, 24% said reduced access to communication services was an issue and 20% found there was reduced access to colleagues.
The chief executive of the Victorian branch of the Australian Institute of Management, Tony Gleeson, told SmartCompany working away from the office isn’t suited to everyone.
“With digital workers you must be clear with what the objectives are and have some sort of way for them to connect with business with where they’re up to, like a database,” he says.
“Don’t expect them to work a standard 9am to 5pm day. In my experience they actually end up working longer hours and produce better quality work, but it isn’t for everyone.”
He says working from home is best suited to people who are “well-structured”.
“They should also be in roles with very clear deliverables, for example if a report needs to be created by a set time and dates,” he says.
“It can be very lonely, so some form of instant messaging support helps… it can lead to cultural issues after a while and I don’t think you can do it for a long period of time.”
Gleeson says people who are working in the physical office end up assuming those working from home are slacking off, when this is rarely the case, and they end up missing out on the “office politics”.
“The third thing is the workers can be forgotten about after a period of time. The managers don’t get to know their personality and don’t know how far they can be stretched. From my experience, you end up being pigeon-holed into a certain kind of work.”