Push for workers to return to the city from February

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The City of Melbourne and business groups are pushing for workers to return to city offices from next month, although the state government has given no signs of changing its work-from-home recommendation.

Melbourne lord mayor Sally Capp said it was time to signal with confidence the return of city workplaces.

Commuters in the CBD are thin on the ground, with foot traffic down. Credit:Justin McManus

“What we are calling for from state government and major employers is to really say it’s time to start returning to workplaces,” she said. “We’re hoping we’ll see a really big push for that from February onwards.”

Epidemiologists said the Omicron wave may have passed its peak, with Victoria recording 14,836 new cases on Tuesday and the 14-day average trending down.

The state government advice that has applied from December 23 is for all Victorians to work from home if they can. On Tuesday, the government declined to say how long this recommendation would remain in place.

Similar government advice had applied in NSW, where COVID restrictions were to have been lifted after this weekend’s public holiday, but the recommendation to work from home has now been extended until February 28.

In Melbourne, city workplaces remain largely empty and cafe owner Gerard Kelly said the CBD was so deserted “you could literally shoot a cannon down there at the moment”.

Mr Kelly opened Queensmith in the city’s legal district in December and said it was “extremely quiet”, but rent and outgoings did not stop.

Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry acting chief executive Scott Veenker backed the council’s push calling for an “early February” return-to-work date for office staff.

“Once we get over the Australia Day weekend, then people return from annual leave and schools obviously return, so I think early February should look to be the target that we should be aiming for,” he said.

Gerard Kelly, owner of Queensmith cafe in Melbourne said the city’s legal precinct, is deserted.

“[Rapid antigen tests] will be more freely available also and the booster appointments available too, so those factors should result in people being more comfortable with returning to the office.”

However, property industry lobby group the Property Council believes while a February target is a “noble ambition”, the return to Melbourne offices is unlikely to happen for a few months.

“We saw through our office occupancy data over the last two years that it really takes about three to four months for people to come back in any real numbers after a lockdown,” executive director Danni Hunter said.

Ms Hunter, who contracted COVID-19 over the summer, said there was a “different psyche” for those who have recovered from the virus and were not worried about returning to the city.

Property Council executive Danni Hunter predicted it will take two to three months for office workers to return in significant numbers. Credit:Joe Armao

“For those who had it really mildly, they’ve come through it, they feel more protected because they’ve been vaccinated and they’ve got the immune response from having the virus,” she said.

The Property Council called for “proactive language” from the state government encouraging workers to come back to the office and for masks to be removed in offices as soon as it was safe to do so.

The requirement to wear masks indoors has been a disincentive for many office workers but Health Minister Martin Foley said on Tuesday that it would remain in place.

“We’ve seen masks play a really important role over the last two years now,” he said. “They’re low impact on people but high impact on the virus and we don’t have any plans to change that.”

MYOB chief executive Greg Ellis has been into the company’s Richmond office only twice since the pandemic began. Credit:Eamon Gallagher

When office workers do return, it is unlikely to be for five days a week, with Victorian public servants due to return with a default starting position of three days a week in the office.

Major employers including ANZ and accounting platform MYOB had planned to have staff start to return next month on a hybrid basis, but an ANZ spokesman said the bank was “closely monitoring” government advice and office staff would remain working from home until that changed.

MYOB chief executive Greg Ellis said the return date was more likely to be mid to late February and staff would start with one day a week in MYOB’s Richmond office, with employees unlikely to ever return five days a week.

“From a business point of view, we’re coping fine with working remotely, but we as a company said to our staff that we really believe in collaboration and we really believe in human contact,” he said. “A lot of our staff really want that face-to-face interaction again.”

Professor Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University.Credit:Jason South

Epidemiologists Professor Catherine Bennett and Associate Professor James Trauer both said a delayed return to the office was preferable.

“If it’s feasible to hold off for a month or three weeks, then I think we’re in a much better position to see what’s happening with the case numbers,” Professor Bennett said. “Then you can have the plan built around where we’re going rather than having a bit of uncertainty coming up over the next few weeks as we change things around.”

Associate Professor Trauer said a February return was “a bit too early”.

“The sequence that I’d like to see is schools going back and then workplaces a good couple of weeks after that,” he said.

In the meantime, workplaces are having to balance the demands of staff eager to get back in the office and those who are reluctant to return.

Collingwood-based start-up Linktree has always operated a hybrid workplace model with “zero obligations” for employees to come into the office, but founder Alex Zaccaria said some employees were happy to continue to work from home while others could not wait to return.

Linktree employee Jess Box said she wanted to get back into the workplace as soon as the government recommendation changes.

“I’ve adjusted [to working from home] but I think what I enjoy about being in a physical office is actually the commute and the kind of mental reset you get from commuting into the office, whether it’s listening to a podcast or having a conversation,” she said. “I think that was the transition that was probably the most challenging in terms of mental health.”

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