Coronavirus Asia-Pacific: Australia

With Covid-19 reined in, Australians urged to return to the office, but many want to keep working from home

Australians are preparing for what will be a strange collective experience - working from the office again.

After eight months of work-from-home arrangements, employees are being encouraged to return to the office now that the country is largely free of Covid-19. Sunday was the first day since June without a community transmission.

Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter said he wanted to see a speedy resumption of working in the office, but noted that individual businesses should determine their own arrangements.

"As our economy continues to recover, it is important that Australian workplaces get back to normal as quickly as possible, which includes getting staff back into the office where it is safe to do so," he told The Sun-Herald.

The state of Victoria has largely suppressed its second wave after a lengthy lockdown that is now easing. Yesterday marked six consecutive days without community transmitted cases.

Nationally, there were no community transmitted cases of Covid-19 recorded yesterday, though the state of New South Wales has recorded six such cases in the past week. In total, Australia recorded 27,634 cases and 907 deaths as of yesterday.

Australia has taken a cautious approach to the pandemic, including strict lockdowns, restrictions on group gatherings and interstate travel, and a ban on international travel. The measures brought the central business districts (CBDs) of Sydney and Melbourne to a standstill and have taken a heavy toll on shops and food outlets in city centres.

But Australians are now returning to work.

A survey released yesterday by the Property Council of Australia showed that office occupancy rose last month in all cities, except in Melbourne. In Sydney, occupancy went from 35 per cent in September to 40 per cent last month, while in Perth, it went from 63 per cent to 77 per cent.

Melbourne's office occupancy dropped from 8 per cent to 7 per cent, but this is expected to rise dramatically with the easing of restrictions.

The council's chief executive, Mr Ken Morrison, said businesses have begun "rebooting" their workplaces. "This is encouraging news for the Australian economy given the critical role of CBD-based businesses in supporting jobs and economic activity. There is clearly scope for more people to return in every city," he said in a statement.

But the large-scale return to work is set to be gradual and will include new measures to ensure social distancing and enable potential contract tracing.

National Australia Bank last week became one of the first major employers to encourage staff to return to the office. But it also noted that "we will not be returning to the way things were before the pandemic". The firm will limit the number of people using lifts, ban communal cutlery, and introduce online booking of desks in lieu of hot-desking.

But many Australians may not be rushing back to the office, even after the Covid-19 threat recedes.

A study released last month by UNSW Canberra and CQUniversity found 64 per cent of employees felt they had achieved more working at home than in the office. More than two-thirds wanted to continue regularly working from home for some of their hours. The findings were based on a survey of 6,000 public servants.

"Managerial resistance to working from home largely appears to have been overcome, indicating that we may indeed be witnessing a revolution in how we work," the study found.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2020, with the headline 'Employees urged to return to the office'. Subscribe