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You can’t conquer the world from your garage

by John McBain, Joint CEO

Since mid-March, when many Australians were sent home to work, we have been plagued with the repeated doomsday mantra that office occupation has a terminal outlook and that working from your spare room or garage is now the norm.

Let me go on record to say the spare bedroom or home-office bunker, idling beside the family sedan, is no place for the world of commerce but a temporary and only partially adequate stop gap.

Pessimists might roll their eyes, citing the $3.7 billion office portfolio our business has built, as the reason for challenging the current work-life status quo. But let me explain why the “doomsday” mantra has more than a few holes.

My 40-odd years as a business builder working in the sector – seeing emerging trends and passing fads come and go – gives me confidence that the watercooler chats, executive interaction while passing in the reception, and deal inceptions during office drinks will be back.

Here are five reasons why I have faith that most of us will, and want, to return to the office.

Firstly, let’s look at the country’s output. Social distancing restrictions became mandatory around 20 March. Since then, the ABS released its Anticipated adverse business impacts due to COVID-19, which examined 17 business sectors and the impact Government restrictions have had on operations. It showed an average 53% of businesses affected by the restrictions[1]. However, office-based industries were among the lowest affected. In particular, sectors including Information Media and Telecommunications (IMT); Financial and Insurance Services; and Professional, Scientific and Technical Services; were within the lower quartile.

ABS Anticipated Adverse business impacts due to COVID-19

Source: ABS – 5676.0.55.003 – Business Indicators, Business Impacts of COVID-19, April 2020

What this means is that office workers have a greater ability to resume business as usual and to make the economic contributions that underpin our GDP. Don’t forget, an office worker’s impact on the economy is more than just what they can do at their desk. It’s the expenditure they contribute travelling to and from the office, during their lunch break and after work. It’s the ripple effect they have on the economy by working in an office. More than the economic impact, it’s the social and wellbeing impact they have on the community at large by being within a business environment.

Secondly, let’s talk about office space restrictions. Social distancing rules look like they will be with us for a considerable period with the prospect of a workable, widely distributed vaccine potentially years away. These distancing rules require a larger space between employees and so, theoretically, a larger floorplate would be required to accommodate all workers.

Consequently, employers have responded with interim measures for a proportion of their workforce to return to the office. However, when restrictions lift even further then full occupancy can return. It doesn’t make sense for a company to reduce its lettable office space or surrender its lease for a temporary period.

I also believe the part-office, part-home workforce is a temporary measure because how efficiently can a team work with only 60% gathered for a meeting and the remaining 40% dialling in? Are we really that confident we can consistently, effectively communicate in large teams via video conferencing? Can we work this way year-in, year-out? More about this later.

Now, to my third point. The consequences of not gathering in person, resulting in miscommunication and limited information sharing. We’ve had several months so far, imagine the carnage after several years of choosing self-imposed exile.

A large chunk of our day is spent meeting with people. Often, it’s off the back of a casual conversation – something that isn’t on the meeting agenda – that new concepts, investment opportunities, networks and contacts are unearthed. This is a valuable and immeasurable part of business.

I am not discrediting video conferencing technology. However, I believe it should be used as a supplementary tool, not a staple. Why? Conversations are stilted due to sporadic internet connectivity, the constant and inevitable over-speaking and interruptions as well as a reluctance to talk more freely.

Australia’s internet capacity has been severely tested in the past few months and found to be seriously wanting – this factor alone creates a situation that starkly opposes the much vaunted highly-efficient home office.

Honestly, though, who doesn’t enjoy chin-wagging with colleagues about industry news. This is what we don’t get while staring at a computer screen. And what about the mental effects of prolonged isolation as a workday norm? I know I’m slightly veering off topic but supporting single people (in particular) has been a focus of our company during this difficult period.

Getting back to the main topic, my fourth point, and what I alluded to earlier. Business doesn’t necessarily get done in a meeting room. A chance catch-up in the elevator. An overheard rumour three rows away. A mid-morning coffee break in the kitchen. Office osmosis is the crux of a healthy business. I don’t believe a business can rapidly nor effectively grow without this healthy type of medium.

And what about business growth?

My final point. Let’s also not forget, as a business grows then so does the headcount. I don’t believe you can effectively transfer company knowledge, train, integrate and build staff rapport and culture solely through screen time and phone calls, (try hiring people by video and telling me this works). I don’t believe employees want this either. There is a lot to be said for the social aspect of the workplace.

To wrap up my musings.

There is certainly merit in a flexible, tech-enabled workforce and we must move with the times. While I can appreciate cost savings can be made, for example, non-critical meeting travel expenses can be reduced; Important meetings can’t be done over email and video, they need a handshake (or elbow knock).

I fundamentally believe we work better and more efficiently when we are together. Be this across a table or waiting for the lift. Offices will continue to be in demand. Progressive companies throughout the nation are starting to get back to the office, kicking off projects that see past COVID-19.

In the meantime, let’s leave the ‘death of the office’ mantra on the passing fad heap and enjoy our CBDs buzzing again and office towers filling.

[1] ABS 5676.0.55.003 – Business Indicators, Business Impacts of COVID-19, April 2020