Pandemic may be trigger for working away from our cities

With logging in from home the new normal for many businesspeople, the Regional Australia Institute hopes more companies will allow employees to live and work in rural and regional areas.

May 28, 2020, updated May 28, 2020
Lauren Andrews says high-powered corporate jobs do not have to revolve around major cities. (Photo: Array)

Lauren Andrews says high-powered corporate jobs do not have to revolve around major cities. (Photo: Array)

More Australians working from home during the coronavirus pandemic could pave the way for people to move out of the cities and take their jobs with them.

Lauren Andrews, head of corporate affairs at Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, has pursued her career from the town of Gisborne, outside Melbourne.

“Big careers and big businesses don’t have to revolve around big cities,” she said.

Now that her colleagues have been forced to work from home during coronavirus restrictions, she said she has witnessed a change in attitude to working remotely.

“It’s been business as usual for me but it’s been really interesting watching my colleagues and others start to adapt to this new normal,” she said.

“Where you are working from home and you’re able to use digital technology to collaborate, I think people are really starting to embrace it.”

Ten major Australian businesses have committed to making this flexibility a long-term reality for workers and have signed up to the Regional Australia Council 2031, which is encouraging people to live and work in regional areas.

Bendigo and Adelaide Bank is one of the employers that has joined the new council, which is led by the policy think tank and advocacy group Regional Australia Institute (RAI).

RAI CEO Liz Ritchie said the initiative could not have begun at a better time.

“We’re working to decentralise people and that’s really embracing rural and remote work,” she said.

“What we’ve seen through COVID-19 is that the future of work has been fast-tracked.”

She said the project aimed to get more Australians to living and working in regional and rural towns, reinvigorating communities that had been losing residents to capital cities for decades.

Advantages for businesses that let employees move out of the city

Many of the member organisations already have flexible working policies in place. The role of the council will be to learn what works and how to encourage more people to shift their traditional city job to the regions.

There are of course hurdles such as phone and internet connectivity but the businesses on the council insist decentralisation can work.

Sam Dimarco, a senior executive with NBN Co, moved his family from Sydney to a farm property just outside a small town called Dorrigo, on the New South Wales mid-north coast, three years ago as part of a trial to decentralise the organisation.

While the lifestyle was a priority, as a general manager within the NBN Co’s Regional and Remote Business Unit, he said the move had been beneficial for his job as well.

“It’d be pretty hard for me to talk to regional Australians, pretending to know what I’m doing, if I’m not at the coalface, rubbing shoulders with the target audience.”

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‘It’s worth asking’

Not every business can sustain such a move, but those that have been successful say it pays to ask employers if a move is possible.

Telstra human resources manager Heidi Harley was working in Melbourne, living apart from her Brisbane-based husband, when she requested to switch to a remote-working arrangement.

Her employer agreed and she was able to start working from her new home in Ningi, regional Queensland.

“I thought at the time I was making a decision that would be career-limiting, but in the past five years I’ve had exciting opportunities I’ve worked on,” she said.

“I haven’t at all been held back by moving to where I’m living now.”

Harley said she believed similar moves would seem more possible to Australians who had now proved they could work productively and effectively from home.

Telstra has flexible working arrangements in place for about 80 per cent of its workforce, mainly through working from home arrangements in capital cities.

But it is currently looking to expand opportunities and is hoping to encourage more of its workforce to think seriously about making a move to regional Australia, and tailoring their work to suit their lifestyle.

The Regional Australia Council 2031 will launch a national campaign later in the year to raise awareness of opportunities in regional Australia.

– ABC / Bridget Fitzgerald

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