Better than remote chance the office is back

I’m writing this from my office. Not the bedroom office I’ve been in for most of the year, but a proper corporate office in North Sydney.

It’s a weird feeling as I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been into the office since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March. It’s quieter than it used to be and there’s more hand sanitiser but the experience is otherwise just like the Before Times.

Office workers are slowly starting to commute to city centres once again.
Office workers are slowly starting to commute to city centres once again.Credit:Kate Geraghty

We’ve heard all about how remote working is here to stay, bringing far-reaching social consequences and upending the real estate market in our central business districts and inner-ring suburbs.

But there’s a pretty good chance that won’t happen, especially if, as expected, we get an effective vaccine. What if we all go back to our pre-COVID normal and it was like working from home in 2020 was all a dream?


Of course, not all jobs have been remote this year. Many workers – for example those in retail, hospitality, healthcare, teaching or manufacturing – are required to be physically present.

But there are still millions of Australians who work in offices, for companies both large and small, or for the government. There are many CBD office towers that have stood empty for most of the year while everyone worked from home. Now it feels like the tide is turning.

At a baby shower recently, spaced out on our picnic rugs in a suburban garden, I chatted with other women about our experiences with work in 2020. At that time, my husband and I were both working full-time from home. Experiences varied but it turned out quite a few people, including a number of public servants, were being pulled back to the office, some more willingly than others.

A week later, my husband’s company started talking about trying to give teams a couple of days a week in the office together. And shortly after that, my own employer started encouraging us to come in two or three days a week to boost confidence, not only internally but within society at large.

Anecdotally, I’m hearing that Australian companies, law firms and government departments are most likely to be pushing for workers to return, a reflection of the fact that Australia has largely kept the virus at bay.

Meanwhile, some multinational companies are making global decisions to keep workers home as the virus continues to wreak havoc in the United States and Europe.

Technology companies, heavily influenced by the culture of Silicon Valley, have also embraced remote working. For example, Atlassian has set its staff free to work anywhere while pushing ahead with plans for a flagship building near Central Station so staff can still come together.

One man, who works for a multinational IT product and services company, told me he has been converted to “remote worker” status and given a one-off payment to assist with setting up the home office more permanently. A start-up called Tiny was poised to sign a lease in Brisbane just before the pandemic but went fully remote instead and explicitly told staff it wouldn’t get another office so they could plan.

Consulting firm KPMG always had flexible working but this year it introduced a “three hub policy” – working from home, the office or the client site – and anyone who wants to work in the office has to book a desk online.

Some of the big banks – like NAB – are encouraging workers back to the office depending on the number of COVID-19 cases in the respective city and with capacity limits in place.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a widely available vaccine, state governments are still encouraging working from home as a way to manage the virus. A NSW Health spokesperson said under the public health orders employers must allow employees to work from home where it’s reasonably practicable to do so.

If nothing else, 2020 has proved wrong all the naysayers who said remote working would never work. Many workers are more productive than ever and have quickly picked up the technology needed to collaborate remotely. Meanwhile, managers found it didn’t take long to realise that good employees will still be good at home and that duds will still be duds.

But one drawback of remote working in the longer term is that it doesn’t provide natural opportunities to mentor younger workers. I can do my job just as effectively at home as in the office now but I know I benefited in my 20s from sitting near more experienced colleagues and watching how they worked.

On the other hand, my life runs much more smoothly if I don’t have to commute every day and can do a few chores in my breaks.

As we move into 2021, let’s take the best of both worlds. A combination of home and office and the ability to move between the two sounds about perfect.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer.

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