One of the key findings of the Work Life Ecologies Project is that academic collaboration often entails physical co-presence, and that this is one of the main reasons academics undertake air travel. This aligns with research into business travel more generally, as professionals often use air travel to meet partners and clients.
This raises the question: to what extent can work be performed remotely, without the need for frequent travel?
Remote work – also known as ‘telecommuting’ – is a form of work where employees rely on digital technologies to perform their work, rather than physically commuting to an office or place of employment. Online collaboration platforms, video-conferencing, email, and even immersive virtual and mixed-reality platforms are all examples of tools that facilitate remote work. In the most general sense, these tools allow us to communicate and collaborate with people that we’re physically dislocated from. Remote workers connect to their colleagues, collaborators, or clients through these tools to perform their employment obligations.
The potential for more and more people to engage in remote work is leading to a movement that demographer Bernard Salt refers to as ‘e-change’. Like the ‘tree change’ (migration to the country) and ‘sea change’ (migration to coastal towns) movements of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the ‘e-change’ movement consists of a migration away from the large capital cities to nearby regional and coastal ‘lifestyle’ towns, whilst using broadband internet connections to perform work remotely. Information and communication technology is now capable of making this possible those whose work primarily requires digital connectivity rather than constant physical presence.
This e-change movement is also being propelled by developments in our largest cities, particularly Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Record property prices are making housing increasingly unaffordable, particularly in well serviced areas with proximity to the CBD. As these cities expand outward and become higher density, traffic congestion is intensifying despite significant investment in road construction and public transport provisioning.
The e-change movement offers the potential to contribute to solving several key challenges facing policymakers in the present and coming years. A more decentralized population could reduce pressure on our increasingly congested large cities, reinvigorate the economies and civic life of regional and coastal towns, and allow more Australians to pursue a non-metropolitan lifestyle whilst remaining connected to their work in the city.
But there are important questions yet to be asked in this area. Who is engaging in e-change and remote work, and where are they located? What key local infrastructures – such as NBN or co-working spaces – are required to live an e-change lifestyle? What impacts do e-changers have on the areas they migrate to?
In 2019, Work Life Ecology researchers will be undertaking a scoping research project to understand the e-change movement in Australia, and how it might be leveraged toward better social outcomes and sustainability.