The country’s biggest office and retail landlords implored both the business sector and governments to get their staff back working in offices to help reignite the economy in its CBD heartlands.
At The Australian Financial Review Property Summit in Sydney on Tuesday, Darren Steinberg, who leads the nation’s largest office landlord Dexus, and Peter Allen, the head Westfield-operator Scentre, touted the productivity benefits of working in offices while saying the return of city workers was vital to stimulate surrounding businesses.
Those pleas came as major property stocks, particularly the owners of office towers and shopping malls, are weighed down by sharemarket negativity. The weak share prices could make companies such as Dexus and Scentre takeover targets, the summit heard.
“I implore business leaders to get their people back to work,” Mr Steinberg said. “The easiest thing to do right now is to say ‘hey, we’ll stay at home and see how this thing plays out’.”
But without city workers back in office towers, the country’s first recession in three decades would be much more painful than it needed to be, the Dexus chief warned.
“The key reason is that the CBDs across Australia – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide – generate the majority of GDP in this country. So if we don’t get the people back into the offices, get the actual work happening, we don’t get new work generated, we don’t get the multiplier effect into the small to medium businesses that inhabit the CBDs, this country is going to have a far more severe recession. “
Mr Allen said leaders, whether they be in business or government, should be “walking the talk” in terms of leading their employees back into the office.
Scentre’s flagship mall, Westfield Sydney in the CBD, has seen a 50 per cent drop in foot traffic due to workers staying away from office buildings.
Mr Allen said Scentre support staff had returned to the office since May 13 and that he personally found it really difficult to work remotely.
“I think that the interaction with the team is really important in terms of bouncing ideas and growing the business,” he said.
Mr Allen said he had had discussions with NSW Treasury and was very surprised to learn that the majority of its staff were still working from home.
“I was really pleased though that last week the NSW Treasurer and as well as the NSW Planning Minister got together. They had a planning summit. They talked about the idea of bringing Treasury and government employees back [to the office] So I think that will be a very positive sign for NSW.”
Asked about a timeframe for the return to the office, Mr Allen said they talked about doing it “pretty immediately in terms of encouraging staff to come back.”
The longer term implications of the rapid shift to working from home during the pandemic lockdown were a hot topic at the Financial Review Summit. Most agreed that workplace culture would allow for more flexibility while the office itself would remain central to fostering company culture.
Brookfield managing partner for real estate Sophie Fallman said it was safe to bring people back into the office and the Canadian property giant had been doing so since the middle of the year.
“We have 90 per cent of our people back five days a week for almost four months now, since June, because we’ve deemed it safe to be able to do so, and we’ve done it in line with the government regulations, she told the Summit.
“We’ve felt that it’s really important to do that in proactive ways to demonstrate that it can be done and that is really desirable and frankly well-received by people. It’s not dissimilar in London where we’re about 80 per cent back and 100 per cent in Asia.”
Stephen Conry, who heads the local arm of global commercial real estate agency JLL and is the president of the Property Council of Australia, said business leaders themselves needed to step up and encourage workers back to the office.
“What seems to be a problem is that many CEOs aren’t sure what they should do and yet they lament that they haven’t got staff,” he said.
“I was talking to a national CEO of a massive firm the other day who was very, very concerned that staff wouldn’t come back to the office. I just said to him; ‘Why don’t you tell them to come back?’ There are rules in place, there are safety measures in place’.
“You couldn’t force the issue, but if CEO’s won’t do it . . . Of course if you survey your staff the majority will say; ‘No, I’m very productive at home, I’m very happy’. That’s nice. What suits the business?”