COVID-19 accelerated changes in the nature of work

State of Australia’s Skills 2021: now and into the future

COVID-19 accelerated changes in the nature of work

The economic disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic was unlike that in previous Australian recessions, either in the distribution of its impacts or the speed of labour market recovery. The immediate disruption also had effects unlike some pre-COVID-19 ideas of what the future of work would look like. While the future of work was seen as a slow process of labour market change, the COVID-19 pandemic was a sudden shock. Previously, regions were more affected by longer term structural change among industries. However, the pandemic’s economic and social restrictions hit capital cities harder than regions. Yet the longer-term effects are likely to be an acceleration of trends in the distribution of occupations that were evident before the pandemic, rather than an emergence of whole new trends.

Modes of delivering products and services changed

Digital adoption is likely to accelerate through changing consumption patterns and modes of delivery. E-commerce has expanded considerably across big and small business during the COVID-19 pandemic. In January 2021 the total value of online sales in Australia was more than $3 billion (seasonally adjusted) compared with more than $1.8 billion in January 2020 88.This change in consumer demand is likely to be sustained. For example, according to the Household impacts of COVID-19 survey undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), one in three Australians now prefer to do more of their shopping online 89

Remote and hybrid work

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, jobs with high levels of social contact were often thought to be ‘future proof’; however, jobs with high social contact and a low scope to be performed at home were more negatively impacted in the short term. Research conducted by the NSC during the height of the pandemic found that 39% of Australian jobs can be done remotely, and these were less negatively impacted by the pandemic. The analysis was conducted by using data and methods from a study by Dingel and Neiman and adapted to the Australian context using the Census of population and housing 90.

Hybrid working arrangements are likely to be in demand among employees. PwC found that while 19% of Australian workers say their ideal future work environment is entirely virtual, 72% prefer a mix of in-person and virtual working – known as hybrid working 91. Hybrid working arrangements can also help address concerns about productivity and well-being that come with an entirely remote working arrangement, and employers will need to implement creative ways to create a sense of community, connection and belonging in the workplace.

A global survey by PwC of 32,500 workers in 19 countries found that only 10% of Australians wanted to go back to the traditional workplaces that existed before last year’s COVID-19 lockdown and almost 75% wanted a mix of face-to-face working and remote working. A further 16% said they wanted to work only from home or a remote location on a permanent basis 92.

Although remote working was embraced during the height of the pandemic, some organisations have already foreseen a future of hybrid work with a mix of in person and remote work. A 2020 survey by the Boston Consulting Group found that employers expect about 40% of their employees to follow a remote-working model in the future 93. The British multi-national bank HSBC announced in February 2021 that it expects to shrink its property footprint by 40% with about 85% of its employees having the ability to work from home 94

However, the increasing trend towards remote work may not be clear cut. Research by the McKinsey Global Institute found that some tasks are done more productively in person than remotely 95. There is no loss of productivity in activities such as updating knowledge and interacting with computers when they are performed remotely, whereas training and coaching, selling and influencing and caring for others are less productive remotely than in person. This may suggest that as the world emerges from the pandemic, we are still likely to see a trend of hybrid work in the workplace.

If this trend continues, the increasing popularity of remote and hybrid working for occupations where that is possible will continue to reshape day-to-day activities for these jobs. For example, activities such as holding a design meeting or engaging with clients will rely more on digital collaborative tools such as video-conferencing software and cloud-based project planning software.

The pace and implementation of remote and hybrid working policies will vary across each organisation. However, given the interconnectedness of organisations in the supply chain, the reliance on remote working capabilities will continue to increase. For example, a line manager at a recycling plant who works full time on premises may still require the capability to effectively use video conferencing to engage in weekly meetings with senior management who are working remotely part-time.

Employers have implemented new technologies

Additional questions were added to the NSC’s Recruitment Experiences and Outlook survey to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on businesses. Between 16 November 2020 and 5 February 2021, around 2000 employers from 19 industries (based on the Australian and New Zealand Standard Industrial Classification – ANZSIC) responded to additional research questions in the survey.

Overall, 33% of employers reported that they had brought in automation or new technology due to COVID-19. The uptake of automation and technology was reported by employers across all business sizes.

The industries with the highest proportion of employers surveyed who implemented new technology or automation due to COVID-19 were arts and recreation services (56%), health care and social assistance (51%), education and training (50%), professional, scientific and technical services (46%) and financial and insurance services (44%).

Although 7% of all employers responded that they had been using technology to conduct at least part of their business where it was usually done by a human, the vast majority of these (85%) responded that there was no impact on their staffing levels due to automation or new technology.

Remote working was the most reported uptake of new technology due to COVID-19, and was mostly implemented by employers in the professional, scientific and technical services industry. Some employers in manufacturing and construction also reported the implementation of remote working technology. Among employers, 12% reported the implementation of technology outside of the survey categories. The most common ‘other’ response was the uptake of QR codes, which was particularly common in the accommodation and food services industry.

The high-level findings from this survey may suggest that the acceleration of technology implementation in the workplace is likely to affect most industries, but not directly affect staffing levels. This suggests that the differences in the impact of technology and automation are more likely to be task and skill specific.


88 ABS, Online sales, January 2021 – supplementary COVID-19 analysis, 2021.

ABS, Household impacts of COVID-19 survey, November 2020, 2020.


JI Dingel and B Neiman, ‘How many jobs can be done at home’, Working paper 26948, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2020; unpublished NSC research.


PwC, Hopes and fears 2021, 2021.


A Dahik et al., ‘What 12,000 Employees Have to Say About the Future of Remote Work’, Boston Consulting Group, 2020.


H Wilson, ‘HSCB sees its future 40% less office space After COVID’, Bloomberg, 23 February 2021.