Daily juggle: Work and home life have converged for Thirroul's Peta Muller - a mum of three who works in banking in Sydney CBD - during the pandemic. Picture: Robert Peet

Daily juggle: Work and home life have converged for Thirroul's Peta Muller - a mum of three who works in banking in Sydney CBD - during the pandemic. Picture: Robert Peet

A new way of living for thousands stepping off the Sydney-to-Illawarra train

How COVID-19 has reshaped life for thousands of Illawarra commuters

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There and back, five days a week, Harris Cheung spent about 17 hours commuting every week for the past six years. That all changed in March.

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In the pre-pandemic world, it was not unusual for Illawarra residents who work in Sydney to spend upwards of three hours a day on a train.

For Figtree's Harris Cheung, who works in North Sydney, his usual commute began with a drive to Unanderra station, a rush to catch the train to Town Hall where he then had to change to get another connecting service across the bridge.

"On a good day, it was about an hour and 40 minutes, door to door," he said.

There and back, five days a week, he has spent about 17 hours commuting every week for the past six years.

That all changed in March.

"The company I work in is very understanding and flexible," Mr Cheung said. "As soon as the government announced there would be restrictions, they started giving us the opportunity to work from home."

Straight away, he felt different. He was less tired at the end of the day and had more time to notice little things around the home, spend time with his partner or duck to the shops.

And it's no wonder. In the 23 weeks Mr Cheung has not been commuting, he's spent 380 fewer hours - equal to 16 days - on the train.

Circuit breaker: Figtree resident Harris Cheung (left) normally spends up to 17 hours a week commuting to Sydney for work - but his routine has been dramatically altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Pictures: Supplied/Anna Warr.

Circuit breaker: Figtree resident Harris Cheung (left) normally spends up to 17 hours a week commuting to Sydney for work - but his routine has been dramatically altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Pictures: Supplied/Anna Warr.

"For my physical and mental health it's been quite positive - I can do exercise whenever I want, and the time that you spend on public transport is really a drag, so mentally it's been a positive not to have to worry about missing the train and about having that three hours a day of doing not much," he said.

It hasn't all been good, however. Mr Cheung misses the spontaneous collaboration you can get in an office environment and has found the pandemic isolating.

Nevertheless, he can see that this period could drive big changes in the way he and others choose to work.

"I think there will be a push from the workforce for more people to work from home," he said.

"For myself, being a manager, I will go back to commuting most of the time - but I will ask to work one day from home because I can see the benefits too."

As the pandemic wears on and working from home becomes an ingrained part of life for many Illawarra residents, policy makers are beginning to think about how traditional work life may change post-COVID.

A number of large employers, especially in the banking and tech sectors, have already told their workforce working from home can be the norm once the threat of infection passes.

And while that will no doubt have a dramatic effect on parts of the Sydney CBD, it could also reshape Wollongong's business precinct.

Wollongong MP Paul Scully, who commuted to Sydney for 10 years in a past job, hopes to see more people working locally long-term.

He has suggested the creation of satellite office hubs in Wollongong CBD, which would allow non-frontline workers to stay close to home while working in an office.

Lots of people really loved it ... they had more quality time with family, there was a slower pace of life, they could do the cooking and gardening and sit down and play with their kids. But other people wanted to get back into their car and get away from home.

Mr Scully has pitched the idea to the NSW Government, especially for government workers, and hopes the pandemic experience will show that such a concept can be a success.

"When I was commuting to Sydney, I would go up there, log in to a computer, spend the day doing work there and then jump back on the train and come home again," he said.

"The technology to allow for remote working wasn't quite as good then, but I think what we've realised is that you don't have to go up there every day just to have someone oversee the fact that you're there.

"This would give people a chance to improve their quality of life and have that life-changing effect that a couple of days working close to home could have, but also allow for some spill-over spend into Wollongong itself. You'd get people spending locally as well as living locally."

At the University of Wollongong, director of the Infant Learning Lab at the Early Start research centre, Associate Professor Jane Herbert surveyed 160 Illawarra families on how they were coping with the demands of work and home during the pandemic.

Many shared experiences of not commuting.

"Lots of people really loved it," Prof Herbert said. "They loved the extra time they had - they had more quality time with family, there was a slower pace of life, they could do the cooking and gardening and sit down and play with their kids.

"But other people wanted to get back into their car and get away from home."

"Downsides people spoke about were actually missing being at work - so for a lot of people their social support comes from their colleagues at work. Also [work can be about] just getting away for some social separation between home and work."

Prof Herbert also interviewed fathers specifically about their thoughts and approaches to parenting, and found some had shifted their perspective by spending more hours at home.

"Some of the dads we talked to recognised that they missed out on a lot, they wanted to get to know their kids better," she said.

"People also liked being able to be a part of more of the everyday activities, like cooking, cleaning and being part of the household together.

"If someone has gone off to work for the day, you get home and everyone is tired, you're rushing through the routine of getting everyone fed and to bed. But slowing down and being involved in those everyday things means you're present and you're learning about your children and the things they love."

Prof Herbert says it's too early to tell whether this will change things permanently, but believes many people will request to work from home some of the time.

"The common response we got was that people would like to do four days a week, or finish earlier - just being able to use their time differently," she said.

"I think one of the major positives that has come from this is that it's allowed people to view what it would be like on the other side. We are creatures of habit and we get into our routine and don't get the chance to think if this is the routine we want to be in - but because our lives got turned upside down it gave us a chance to look at whether this was the way we actually wanted our lives to be."

Thirroul's Peta Muller, who works for a bank in the Sydney CBD, was already working from home some of the time pre-pandemic but has been doing so full-time in recent months. She says the biggest change she's seen has been in other people's attitudes to flexible work.

"When I first started working from home years ago, I was the only person doing it and there were disadvantages to not being in the office the whole time," she said.

"Attitudes have definitely changed, people I work with are now saying how much better, and even more productive, they can be working from home, so I do think - at least in some industries - it will change things.

"That's got to have an effect on the Illawarra, you see lots of people wanting to move here - we did it - and if you can successfully work from home and don't have to go to the city five days a week, then our area has a lot of appeal."

Pandemic provides good case for change

Keli Law has enjoyed working from home, and more time with son Tom. Picture: Adam McLean

Keli Law has enjoyed working from home, and more time with son Tom. Picture: Adam McLean

Keli Law doesn't miss the 4.30am wake-up calls each weekday, leaving home early to beat the traffic on her commute to Sydney.

The Figtree lawyer would spend around two-and-a-half hours on her round trip daily, and once calculated that it cost her close to $10,000 a year in petrol.

She had a strict schedule - leaving her young son Tom with her parents when she left for work, and fitting in a gym session before getting to her Parramatta office by 7.30am. She'd then try to leave work by 3.30pm to avoid the evening rush on the roads.

Some may have used the time to watch Netflix and do the minimum - but for others it was a good opportunity to put in a case for changing their work practices.

In March though, when the first wave of coronavirus hit Australia, the pace became a bit more relaxed. Her law firm had been prepared for change - ensuring every staff member had the technology, and support, to work from home.

Courts too had changed the way they operated in the wake of the pandemic, with a greater focus on video technology to keep the wheels of justice moving.

During the initial lockdown Ms Law, and 10-year-old Tom, would work and study together from home - which had its ups and downs.

"During the lockdown our whole office worked from home," she said.

"The benefits were not having to get up at 4.30am, and being able to spend more time with Tom. He enjoyed having me there, and having me be more present rather than leaving before he woke up, and rushing in the door after work.

"The difficulties though, especially during home schooling, were trying to work and maintain a high level of client service - and co-ordinate the necessary court appearances."

Schools reopened and so did Ms Law's workplace, though now it's operating on a rotating roster - one week on, one week off.

She envisages work life may never be the same for many, with organisations recognising that employees can work effectively from home.

"If you wanted an opportunity to show your employer you could work from home, and be efficient, then this was it. Some may have used the time to watch Netflix and do the minimum - but for others it was a good opportunity to put in a case for changing their work practices."

The story A new way of living for thousands stepping off the Sydney-to-Illawarra train first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.

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