A dispute between Commonwealth Bank employees and bosses is emerging as the front line of a battle to shape Australians’ right to work from home.
CommBank has ordered its 49,000 employees to return to the office for at least half a week from next Monday, sparking a backlash from those who are working remotely under arrangements put in place during the Covid pandemic.
The fight kicked up a notch on Wednesday with the Financial Services Union (FSU) formally challenging the office-to-office order by asking the Fair Work Commission to side with employees.
A stream of complaints from CommBank staff have popped up in the media that CEO Matt Comyn and human resources group executive Sean Lewis’ directives are taking away a key benefit of work without consultation.
National secretary Julia Angrisano confirmed the FSU had ‘asked the Fair Work Commission to intervene in the matter.’
Commbank CEO Matt Comyn has ordered the bank’s 49,000 workers to return to the office for at least half a week.
As the National Secretary of the Financial Services Union Julia Angrisano asked the Fair Work Commission to ‘intervene’ the ‘mandate’ again.
Brought in as a public health mandate during the Covid pandemic, remote work has brought about a seismic shift in the way the country works with technology enabling many workers to effectively do their work away from the office.
Team meetings, business flights and conferences gave way to digital workspaces like Zoom meetings and Slack, and companies eventually agreed to make hybrid arrangements — where hours are split between home and office — permanent.
But Combank’s fight is going a step further, with the FSU wanting the Fair Work Commission to set a non-negotiable ‘mandate’ to return to office, not even for part of the week.
‘Instead of issuing orders, we would like the bank to engage in a consultation process with the FSU and affected workers,’ Ms Angrisano said.
‘What the CBA has done is to ignore the enterprise agreement and instead dictate changes to work from home which currently suits many of its employees.’
‘At CBA our members are entitled to advice about changes to their working conditions… remote working is a sustainable model.’
Ms Angrisano said CBA workers had complained to the union that mandating a return to the office would force them to spend more money on travel and childcare and interfere with their family lives.
They can lose at least two to three hours to and from work every day.
‘Some workers are so unhappy with the CBA order that they are considering resigning and seeking more flexible working arrangements.’
‘We will ask the Fair Work Commission to direct the CBA to arrange remote working on mutually agreeable terms for all affected workers,’ Ms Angrisano said.
Commonwealth Bank staff have complained about an internal email asking them to record their presence at work before a mandatory return to the office – but the bank explained there was a backlash over a voluntary app designed for office workers.
Combank’s fight could determine how remote work will remain
Some people were complaining that Commbank employees were too precious to return to the office
FSU also solicited comments from Commbank employees on how the changes will affect them.
‘This change will have a financial, productivity and engagement impact,’ said one.
‘I work in a different state than the rest of my team, I have to travel all the way to sit alone in the office.’
Another said: ‘When we go to the office we sit alone and do our work like at home but with more distractions and costs.’
A Commonwealth Bank spokeswoman said the requirement to be in the office 50 per cent of the time had been enforced for a month and staff were told of the new requirement in May.
‘Our approach to hybrid working is always about finding the right balance between our longstanding commitment to flexible working and ensuring we deliver the best results for our customers’.
While Combank appears to be a test case for the private sector, public servants have been given the green light to push for permanent remote work benefits.
Under a deal agreed with unions, the Australian Public Service will not be able to impose a limit on the number of days its 176,000 employees can work from home.
With the federal government spending $1.54 billion – or $9,459 dollars – on office rent each year, many of these desks are now empty all or most of the time.
Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett believes the state should cut pay levels for public servants because they save money by working from home.
He said all public servants ‘have no choice but to physically attend their workplaces every day’ such as those working in hospitals and schools should maintain their current pay levels, but those working from home should receive cuts.
Federal government agencies must approve WFH requests with a presumption to ‘lean toward approval’.
They can only refuse after trying to reach a genuine agreement and have a reasonable business reason not to approve.
Workers can challenge the refusal to the Fair Work Commission.
The new deal marks a stark change in attitude from the previous Coalition government, which told public service bosses it wanted staff to ‘show up’, leading agencies to limit work from home.
Many companies will be closely watching how Commbank is playing the war
Large private companies such as Telstra, ANZ, Suncorp and Medibank that have adopted permanent hybrid working arrangements will be closely watching developments in the Combank story.
NAB, which ordered senior bosses to be in the office five days a week, and Mineral Resources whose chief executive Chris Ellison said working from home was a strict no-go.
He is one of several bosses taking the approach of offering employees a reason to tolerate the commute and show up at the office.
‘We’re really focused on the well-being of our people,’ Mr Alison Macquarie told the Australia conference.
‘It’s not just the pay package anymore, it’s with the younger generation. It was in my day, but not anymore. It’s the environment, the opportunities they get and the lifestyle they lead.’
‘We have to try and make sure we get the quality people we want and stay with them.’
Some companies have branched out the other way and embraced remote work entirely.
Health insurer NIB even pays employees an extra $1,200 a year if they rent workplaces in people’s homes.