Major landlords have stepped up their efforts to win people en masse back to the Sydney CBD, calling for public health orders to be amended to better encourage staff to return their workplaces.
A NSW public health order on gathering and movement now in force directs employers “to allow employees to work from home if this is reasonably practical”.
But some major CBD tower owners including Dexus, the country’s largest office landlord, say it is time to drop this stipulation with the retreat of the coronavirus and switch towards orders that more clearly favour the return to a safe workplace.
Dexus’ executive general manager for office Kevin George said many of the ASX-listed property trust’s tenants had been in touch with him, desperate to get their workers back to the office.
“The big issue they are confronting is the public health order in NSW saying that employers must allow employees to work from home where it is reasonably practical,” Mr George said.
“That is proving a big obstacle and is the resistance mechanism for a lot of staff to say ‘the government is saying I should work from home and I’ll prove that I can’.
“The office sector, where we have worked to create COVID-safe workplaces, is being penalised because of the health order that says ‘work from home’.”
A better approach would be a direction that said simply “if your workplace is registered as COVID-safe, then you can return to work”, Mr George said.
The push for a rule change comes as concerns rise over how to restart CBD economies which depend on large numbers of people to thrive. At The Australian Financial Review Property Summit this week, leaders in the sector implored both business and government to encourage their staff back to work.
The future of the modern workplace is under pressure as well following the widespread adoption of working from home through the pandemic disruption. While early enthusiasm for working has waned somewhat, it is expected some degree of flexible working will remain over the longer term.
Both NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet and Planning and Public Spaces Minister Rob Stokes acknowledged the importance of getting workers back to the city to revitalise the economy at last week’s NSW government Summer Summit.
“We’re now working through the various ideas put forward so we can help kick-start our economic recovery from this once-in-a-generation event,” Mr Perrottet said.
“It’s vital we have plans in place to allow people to return safely to work, enjoy Christmas and the holiday period without putting our economy in danger by allowing the virus to get out of hand.”
The Property Council of Australia’s acting NSW executive director, Belinda Ngo, said the public health orders had worked well but it was also time to “pivot or shift to how we can do things in a COVID-safe way”.
“I think we need to review them and consider whether they are working appropriately,” she said.
Another obstacle in the way of a broader return to CBD offices are the lingering concerns about the safety of public transport, according to city landlords.
“We can’t force people to come back into their offices in the city until we can guarantee that travel on public transport is safe,” said Michael Cook, group executive at Investa, another major office tower owner.
“This is critical in Sydney and will ultimately make or break Melbourne when we emerge from this malaise.
“Our state governments should invest in ‘COVID officers’ on public transport – handing out masks if people want them, sanitising and disinfecting as they go. This will help reassure the travelling public and give them confidence to come into work.”