Working from home: Census shows that rich, inner-city suburbs have highest rates

Are you reading this story on your Apple MacBook, in your home office, with the smell of freshly brewed coffee in the air? Or on your phone, in a port-a-loo, on a worksite?

The latest census data just dropped, and it paints a picture of two Australias. There are parts of the country where working from home is absolutely standard, the commute is an option you take when you choose, shoes aren’t necessary, and you can be making dinner 10 seconds after knocking off. Then there’s everyone else: tradies, chefs, nurses, drivers, police, etc. People who need to actually be present in the physical world.

The census shows the geographic divide.

A ‘Laptop Line’ divides Australia’s cities. The inner city works from home, but the suburbs can’t, as the next map shows. In Sydney, the highest rate of working from home happens in the harbourside suburb of Lavender Bay. That’s an area where an apartment can cost well over $3 million. The lowest rate is in Ashcroft, where you can find a three-bedroom house for under $1 million. The irony is that many of those people chose to live in the inner city for proximity to CBD offices they now don’t need to visit.

NSW is Australia’s state with the highest proportion of people working from home, according to the census – an astonishing 31 per cent. That’s up from just 5 per cent at the 2016 census. And in Sydney, the numbers went from 4 per cent to 39 per cent. That’s a lot of empty office buildings!

But of course we need to take the figure with a grain of salt. Last year’s census happened in or around lockdown for Melbourne and Sydney, so the share of people working from home is extra high. The map above probably shows the maximum number of people that can work from home in each area. Outside lockdown, fewer would.

Brisbane’s experience might be a better indicator of how working from home has spread in non-lockdown times. Working from home still rose an astonishing amount – from 5 per cent working from home to 17 per cent. Brisbane also has a laptop line, as the next map shows. Its epicentre is a bit different to Sydney – outer suburbs with larger blocks, including very expensive acreages. Up to 30 per cent of people were working from home last year in those suburbs. Elsewhere it was less than 10 per cent.

Working from home is the hot new trend. But it’s not possible for everyone – the world is dividing into a ‘laptop class’ and everyone else. The laptop class supposedly love lockdowns, work from their beach house when they can, and had “a good pandemic”.

The laptop class can work from home, sprawling on the sofa, tapping at a keyboard while the rain beats on the window. The doorbell rings – it’s another delivery. The tired delivery driver goes back to their wet delivery van, ploughing on through the weather. The laptop class meanders back to their computer, perhaps via the fridge. (Let’s be crystal clear, I can poke fun at people who work from home because I am one!)

Red Roosters and Ford Rangers

Sydney used to have the ‘Red Rooster line’ – Red Roosters were in the west, but not the city centre or the north. If you got your chips and wings at a Red Rooster, it meant you were salt of the earth. The laptop line is an even better scalpel for carving out markers of comfort and privilege. On one side you have marketing men, on the other, men in boots.

I am making jokes about men here. However the reality is working from home skews female in almost all suburbs. Roughly speaking, if one-third of female workers in a suburb work from home, a quarter of men do.

The exception is a handful of very wealthy suburbs where almost everyone is an office worker and men and women work from home at equal rates, as you can see in the next chart. It has a dot for every suburb in Adelaide, and shows the difference between male and female rates of working from home. For example, in Elizabeth, 5 per cent of employed women worked from home but only 2.5 per cent of employed men. Overall, more women work from home, but there are exceptions.

So what’s the future of working from home? Is it here to stay? My guess is yes. The big question is whether everyone who engages in it will stay in the cities. What’s to stop a big chunk of people moving to the coast, or overseas? The maps of where people work from “home” could look very different by next census. In the meantime, here are the maps for the other capitals:

The upsides

Having loads of people who don’t leave home any more is not all bad for everyone else. Anyone who’s driven on a Monday morning knows the blessed relief of the relatively empty streets compared to the bad old days. Public transport is even emptier. Google’s mobility trends report shows public transport use in Victoria is down 37 per cent compared to a baseline period from January 3 to February 6, 2020. You want a seat? Take one! There are plenty. Anyone who owns a cafe in the suburbs is happy too. There’s lots more people in there buying coffee.

But governments are worried about their abandoned CBDs, and trying to revive them. Office workers are going back to the city, reluctantly, and only on certain days. In city bars, Thursday is the new Friday. If you’re going to have a drink with co-workers, it can’t be Friday anymore because nobody else will be there and you’ll look pretty silly running amok in a karaoke joint with your tie around your head Rambo-style, all by yourself.

Jason Murphy is an economist | @jasemurphy. He is the author of the book Incentivology.

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