Thermal screening, temperature checks, lift queues and train carriage restrictions will confront Victoria’s office workers as they eventually emerge from home-based hibernation and return to work at hundreds of currently empty CBD buildings after months of absence.
Occupancy rates in Melbourne’s office towers slumped to about 5 per cent during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic but are expected to rebound to 50 per cent by July, according to figures from global real estate agency JLL.
A survey of tenants by one of the country’s largest landlords, Dexus, shows the company’s national occupancy returning to levels of about 23 per cent in May, rising to 71 per cent by August. Businesses and landlords say full occupancy could be years away, pending the development of a coronavirus vaccine.
On Friday Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews dampened expectations of a quick return for home-based workers despite the relaxation of many other aspects of the state’s lockdown restrictions.
“It will be almost the last thing that changes,” he said.
“If everyone just goes back, back to pressing lift buttons, sharing bathrooms, using kitchens, all the natural stuff that just happens in office environments and a range of other workplaces, if we just go back to that, then we will do nothing but spread the virus.”
The ANZ bank’s solution is to install thermal scanners at the entrances of its main buildings. They take a temperature check, and workers with an elevated temperature must isolate for 10 minutes before being retested.
The bank has also produced a return-to-work information booklet for staff and will keep many communal office areas blocked off, although kitchens and end-of-trip facilities will be accessible.
“It’s much simpler to get them [workers] out of the office, than it is to get them back in,” deputy chief executive Alexis George said.
About 35 per cent of staff will return in the first instance.
“Until we find a vaccine, it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be some form of social distancing in place,” Ms George said.
That could be years away.
For office managers, the long-held belief that desk sharing enables greater workplace efficiency may be dead, said workplace expert Albert De Plazaola, global strategy director with business interior design company Unispace.
“COVID-19 might well sound the death-knell for desk sharing,” he said.
Crowded trains will further slow the return to the office.
“It’s clear that we can’t return to ‘normal’ peak loads, with passengers crammed into trains, trams and buses”, said Public Transport Users Association spokesman Daniel Bowen.
The state government must boost public transport services across the day to spread peak loads as COVID-19 restrictions start to lift, he said.
Mr Bowen cautioned against repeating mistakes made in Adelaide, where peak-hour services were crowded and passengers were in clear breach of social distancing rules due to the lack of train availability following a mechanical fault.
To ease the squeeze, the Transport Department is exploring the option of adding services outside peak hours and looking at ways to let passengers know how busy a train or tram is before they board.
Head of transport services Jeroen Weimar said commuters would be asked to keep doors and bus driver zones clear, not brush past people on escalators and use common sense in navigating the network.
Occupation of Melbourne’s office towers is set to steadily improve after slumping to near empty, around 5 per cent, at the height of the pandemic, JLL’s head of property management, Richard Fennell, said.
The global real estate agency, which looks after 480 office buildings around the country, expects a steady stream of workers to return over the next few months, with occupancy estimated to rise to 50 per cent by July.
“Re-entry is going to play out pretty smoothly. Organisations will come back in a steady build over the next two months,” Mr Fennell said.
“Assuming that we don’t have another outbreak and we can maintain social distancing, I think we will steadily build up,” he said.
Tim Collet, who runs a small business, Specialised Events, in Toorak, said his staff were returning one day a week.
He said this would allow them to complete tasks difficult to do from home such as comparing notes and visually strategising.
“On Zoom or Teams, only one person can speak at a time, making it difficult to have side conversations.”
One of the country’s largest office landlords, $9.8 billion ASX-listed behemoth Dexus, isn’t expecting a return to normal quite so quickly.
The group’s office general manager, Kevin George, said a survey of tenants showed they expected to have about 23 per cent of staff working this month, rising to 71 per cent by August.
Complying with social distancing guidelines may prove tricky.
“A lot of companies may not have the opportunity to get more than those numbers of staff back into their offices based on the layouts,” he said.
Mr Fennell said most businesses were dividing staff into two or more teams with each working in the office on alternate weeks.
Some offices will need be to be reconfigured but the majority fit within guidelines of one person per four square metres of space, he said. The average office layout allows for one person in 10 square metres.
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