People in Adelaide bloody love are returning to the office. Figures released this week put them at the top of the table regarding office occupancy rates compared with pre-pandemic figures – with Brisbane trailing only slightly behind.
Not so down here in Melbourne. In the city “On the Move” (do our number plates still say that? I haven’t been outside since March), office occupancy rates are wallowing around 48%. Both our peak days (57%) and low days (27%) are the lowest recorded. In the same iconic place that brought you the Arts Centre spire and the final episodes of Neighbours, offices are still mostly empty.
The lack of Melbourne office crowds doesn’t seem to transfer to other activities. AFL groups are climbing back to pre-pandemic levels, with 80,000+ fans watching Collingwood take on Carlton recently. Hit shows like Hamilton and Cinderella are drawing sellout crowds who post many photos on social media. Those socializing in the CBD report a buzz in the air, energy returning to a winter’s night out at favorite restaurants sorely missed.
But for whatever reason, this doesn’t translate to the office. Here, we do not want to return to work if we can remotely help it. Why?
I’ve worked from home for the past ten years, so I struggle to be objective; it’s warmer, my cats are here, and pants are optional. Given a choice, I sincerely can’t imagine why anyone would work in an office. So I chatted to some friends about their experiences (“friends” are people you used to see before it became too dangerous to share oxygen you hadn’t washed first).
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A handful of them had always been keen to return to the office. They missed the social interaction, having a delineation between home and work, and being able to swing by someone’s desk with a question instead of hassling them on Slack.
Unfortunately, many people don’t feel the same way. On returning, those friends have found near-empty offices and a team never in on the same day.
For the rest of my friends – who are mostly middle-aged desk-job workers like me, so this is unscientific – a combination of reasons is keeping them closer to home.
I use the word “closer” deliberately. For some, Covid was part of a decision to move further away, if not a full sea change, then at least to suburbs that cost less and offer more flexibility. Now, they don’t want to face Melbourne’s famously bad commute, spending three hours a day gridlocked on the Monash, when they can reclaim that time for more important things. My friend Dan, for instance, has used the extra hours to teach his young daughter to ride her bike.
One friend says the rising cost of living is at play. Petrol prices are obscene; tolls and parking costs are through the roof. Even if they catch public transport, they’re worried about everything from the cost of buying lunch to maintaining a work wardrobe and hairdo, the pressure to socialize, and other general, unexpected payments.
Some of them, like me, love working from home: fewer disruptions, a simpler lifestyle, easy access to their stuff, and local amenities without racing home before they close. They don’t want to go back. They refuse. It’s just better.
We all know there’s a labor shortage. It’s never been more viable to state our needs or take our valuable expertise elsewhere. My pal Caitlin, who is currently required in the office one day a week, told me: “If that changed and they wanted us in more often, I would look for a role that supported remote working.”
Also – and you may have noticed this yourself – it’s been positively polar in Melbourne lately. Many Melburnians do not want to wait at a bus stop while frozen air repeatedly whacks them in the face, no matter how hot their macchiato is.
All of these are practical, valid reasons. But it would be remiss of me not to mention another factor, something that didn’t play out the same way in any other Australian city (certainly not in Adelaide, though it did spend several hours in lockdown because of a misunderstanding with a pizza).
We were told to be scared. And, you know, many of us tried hard to internalize that for the greater good. We spent repeated lockdowns hearing about the dangers lurking on trains, shopping centers, and even from our families. Many people I know are still working to unlearn that fear.
Hearing that it’s safe – desirable for them, even (isn’t the office fun, let’s go out to lunch!) to come out again isn’t a convincing enough reason to go.
So, look. Will Melbourne eventually match Adelaide’s numbers for office attendance? I don’t know; I will be at my desk in my living room until they use the jaws of life to pry me away. But if my friends are anything to go by, Melbourne offices shouldn’t hold their breath (and not only for health reasons). It may be a while yet.