Greater access to "smart work", which allows employees to independently manage their time and work remotely, would help a city's resilience in the face of an epidemic like coronavirus, a researcher says.
Professor Richard Hu, an urban design and planning expert at the University of Canberra's business school, said the COVID-19 threat was an opportunity to explore new ways of working.
"If we have [smart working] practice in place and such a culture, and a management approach in place, that could potentially make our city and the region more resilient to such a crisis," Professor Hu said.
A recent study conducted by Professor Hu found a majority of Canberrans would choose to work flexibly if they could, with 81 per cent of respondents keen to take up the option.
More than 60 per cent of respondents worked outside normal business hours and 43 per cent worked outside their offices, completing mostly knowledge-based tasks like reading and writing.
But a managerial culture that emphasises presence over performance prevents more workers from taking the option, Professor Hu said, who argues "smart work" is the key to developing more sustainable cities.
"The organisational environment is the only barrier. Other than that, we are more advantaged position than other cities because this is a knowledge city," Professor Hu said.
You go to the office to work when necessary. For example, when there's a group meeting.Professor Richard Hu
"We have the highest proportion of educated work staff. So in this city, we don't make other things: we don't make cars, we don't manufacture things. We make knowledge, we make decisions. In a way, we're in a better position than other Australian cities in pursuing this new mode [of work]."
He said Canberra had the highest concentration of "knowledge workers", who were suited to working remotely and flexibly, but the city had a very low take up rate for alternative work patterns.
"The Commonwealth government and the ACT government, they say it's a good idea, this new idea. But at the operational level, managers like to see their staff in the office from 9am to 5pm, and if that culture continues, it's hard to spread this new mode of working," Professor Hu said.
In the 2019 census of federal public servants, 52 per cent said they accessed flexible work arrangements, a spokesman for the Australian Public Service Commission said.
Professor Hu said any concerns in the public sector over security and performance for smart workers could be addressed with technology.
The Australian Services Union, representing members at the Australian Taxation Office, wrote earlier this month to the office to request plans be put in place to support all employees to be able to work from home in the event of quarantine periods.
Professor Hu said smart work did not mean workers should never go to the office, but it did give them an opportunity to better manage their different responsibilities through the day.
"You go to the office to work when necessary. For example, when there's a group meeting and you have to attend these, or weekly or monthly catch ups. Smart work is kind of like flexibility," he said.
Professor Hu said changes to how people worked should also force a rethink of city planning, which still relied on divisions established during the Industrial Revolution.
"Should we continue to designate Coombs as a residential area and Civic as a working office area? That concept will not be valid in 10 years' time or 20 years' time," he said.
Professor Hu said urban planners needed to design communities which allowed for shared living and working uses. This would help reduce commuter traffic and create more sustainable cities.
"If we continue to design houses to live in, it's not going to be the best use of space because we work at home as well. So we need to reconfigure the space that is the most suitable for working and living," he said.