1 September 2021

I rise to speak tonight on productivity, hardly an original issue to raise but an important one all the same. Many here have spoken previously about the importance of productivity and the danger of our long-running productivity crisis. It is important because we have had poor productivity growth for too many years. It is the main reason why our economic and wage growth has been low for so long and why our standard of living is less than it could be. But previous contributions on this topic have been full of warnings and dangers. I would like to contribute something more optimistic. We may be about to turn the corner on productivity, and we must do all we can to take advantage of this opportunity.

For many Australians—millions of Australians—working from home has been a silver lining in the pandemic. While few would want to do it exclusively, many of us have had our eyes opened to a very different way of working. It has shown workers they can, in fact, work remotely. It has shown them the cost of a long daily commute. It has shown managers that workers can, in the main, be trusted to deliver when they work from home, and it has shown managers a world of possibility in restructuring their businesses and offices to take advantage of that flexibility. It will likely be months until the data is published, but we will see significant productivity gains made in the last year. This will be mainly concentrated in those industries that could adapt to flexible work arrangements. That has certainly been the international experience in countries where lockdowns and work from home arrangements were less common than here. The effect here could be even stronger.

We will likely see those gains in the November data release, but they should be sustained for several years, as firms adjust and apply the lessons they have learnt. There is an expectation that productivity growth will taper out as that adjustment is completed. This is possible, if the only lesson we learn is about remote work. But we can sustain that growth if we learn the deeper lesson—that is, the value of experimentation and innovation in our workplaces. This is the one area where Australia has always struggled. Management proficiency is an undervalued skill. Most in management jobs have no special training. In the main, new managers learn by copying other managers, through mentoring, or even from random management books. Amateurs learning from amateurs is a terrible way of developing proficiency. People learn bad habits as well as good ones. They simply don't know the difference. But they may never learn the difference if they just copy their peers. And, if none of your peers are willing to experiment, you won't learn to experiment either. This kind of direction holds us back.

I hope the pandemic shakes up this kind of thinking. I hope managers have viewed the pandemic as an experiment in doing things differently: an experiment in determining a way to learn the value of innovation and change. I hope they keep trying new approaches, new methods and new ways of doing business. I hope it becomes instinctive for managers everywhere, because the pandemic has shown how experimentation can unlock a huge amount of value—value that means more productive businesses, more positive staff and a greater ability to satisfy customers.

We also need to nurture an instinct for innovation. It is already natural for Australians outside the workplace. We are a people who naturally want to have a go, to figure things out and to do things better. If we can bring that attitude into our workplaces, we could see real and sustained productivity growth, not just for a year or a few years but a sustained increase that would raise our incomes, improve our wellbeing and ensure better lives for ourselves and for our future generations.

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