Let’s start with how we got here

Few quick facts:

  • In 2006, we started a pretty consistent trend to a 4-day week, with the two top reasons being 1) caring responsibilities, and 2) because I prefer to work less days
  • From 2006, we started an equally consistent trend line to ‘remote working’. Those who worked remotely most? Leaders and professionals! In other words, those that had the autonomy and agency to do it. Those on laptops or working phones, stayed in the office.
  • Since 2009, (maybe a little earlier in spots) we’ve had a permission-based ‘request for flexible work arrangements’ process for people with caring responsibilities, disability, over 55 years old, and a few others bibs and bobs. Basically, you ask permission to work different hours, different work patterns, or from a different location, and your employer says yes or no, and you lock it in. Laws changed a little recently, but in the interim, it’s been pretty standard.
  • In March 2020, Australia’s state-by-state response to Covid-19 sent anyone who could ‘work from home’ to their homes to work, and a bunch of others home on Job Keeper to be paid a base wage in exchange for not leaving their home.
  • Shortly after, employers raced to put out statements about how flexible they were, with cool photos from the beach, saying ‘we work from anywhere’.

So, hard trend lines to a shorter week, remote work, and permission-based indefinite agreements, all wrapped into employer PR campaigns, during a global pandemic.

That’s how we got here. Now where exactly are we, and what now for the future design of work?

Where exactly are we now

Houston, (and Sydney and Melbourne and almost every other city) we have a problem.

Well, a few really, acknowledging that they may or may not be related.

In May 2023, the ABC did a long report on sleepwalking into lost productivity.

In June 2023, it was formally announced that Australia had the fastest drop in productivity ever. 4.6% drop in a year.

In March 2023, the Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing announced that 1 in 5 (21% or 4.2 million people) had experienced a mental health disorder in the previous 12 months.

Employers started mapping ‘time at the office versus the time they would have liked people at the office’. Those with integrity announced shortfalls, those without data acknowledged not knowing, and those without integrity put out another press release claiming near-on perfection. Those with real numbers, have started with the policy plays – “you must”, “we must”, etc – demanding people ping back to how things were.

In March 2023, the NSW Department of Education announced the worst attendance record ever in 2022. It was worse than the 2020 and 2021 lockdown years.

In April 2023, as governments sought to support small CBD-based businesses, the Fifth Estate, a respected ‘urban planning’ and architectural community and publication, announced that after a hundred years of ‘urbanisation’ that the ‘death of the city may be closer than we think’.

Who knows if and how that all relates. Stanford has just released the initial data on how the trend lines are tracking post covid’s retreat, but for now, we’re trying to make sense of seemingly disconnected, but probably connected, or at least highly correlated, data points.

So how do we move forward?

If we move to Nirvana

Option 1 is to move to Nirvana.

We all set up our preferred way of working taking into account personal preferences, personality, self-determined output metrics, our feelings about commuting, the weather, our preference for gyms and personal fitness, and the needs of those we hold most dear.

In Nirvana, these personal preferences and needs align perfectly to our customers’ needs, our colleagues’ personal preferences, our managers’ ways of working, the work we need to do, and any training and support we need from colleagues and they need from us.

We design our ‘work’ easily meeting all needs of all involved.

If we catastrophise

If we catastrophise, our preferred way of working is so individual that we don’t align to the team, the customers, our manager, our families and friends, or the work we need to do. We become mentally unwell from our lack of connection. We fail to deliver. Cities die, starting the cafes. All our jobs move to lower paid countries, and the economy collapses.

What now?

Chances of Nirvana or hell on earth are both currently being over-promoted, usually fuelled by self-interest in support of a particular narrative.

In reality, we’re more likely to find an alternate option. It won’t be the 8-hour, 5-day working week, of the 1860 Geneva’s Working Man’s Convention. It won’t be the ‘from the loungeroom’ 3-hour day that fits in washing, gym, and coffee with elderly neighbours every afternoon.

It will instead be co-curated, just as we suggested it would be in 2020 (See the article here).

Each workplace and team will look at their work to do, their customers, their own needs, their colleagues’ needs, the way they connect, collaborate and work together, the way they learn, the cities they live in and love, their favourite barrister’s wellbeing, their productivity, their measurable (non-self-determined) required business outcomes, and they’ll design a way to work that well, works.

And who knows, if you’re creative, and your organisation is too, you may just find a way of working that is better than it’s ever been.



  1. For long-term trends on work design: BCEC and Mwah. Happy Worker Report, 2017
  2. Sleepwalking into Lost Productivity: ABC, 9 May 2023
  3. Collapsing Productivity: The Australian, 15 June 2023
  4. Mental Health, Australian Institute of Mental Health and Welfare, 2023
  5. Campaign to address falling attendance, NSW Department of Education, 25 May 2023
  6. School Attendance, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May, 2023
  7. Attendance at the office, Australian Financial Review, 12 June 2023
  8. Death of the city might be closer than we think, Fifth Estate, 20 April 2023