02/06/2020 - 09:41

Getting back to the office

02/06/2020 - 09:41

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Stringent cleaning measures and discounted parking are among the initiatives rolled out to lure workers back to the CBD.

Getting back to the office
Most office workers are yet to return to Perth’s CBD. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Stringent cleaning measures and discounted parking are among the initiatives rolled out to lure workers back to the CBD.

The hustle and bustle of a vibrant city centre has yet to fully return to Perth’s CBD, with foot traffic remaining relatively subdued since the state government encouraged Western Australians to head back to the office as of May 18.

The expectation of queues for temperature checks and hours long waits for lifts – in order to adhere to the national social distancing recommendations – has seemingly played a role in keeping many office workers at home, in addition to general caution about emerging from months in lockdown.

Nevertheless, the City of Perth, office landlords, and building managers are pushing ahead with initiatives to entice businesses back to the CBD.

Among these is the City of Perth’s ‘Back to kinda normal’ campaign, launched on May 22, which aims to support a steady return of workers and visitors to the CBD.

City of Perth chair commissioner Andrew Hammond said the campaign would initially focus on increased cleaning, safety patrols, and free or discounted all-day parking.

“[The objective is to] rapidly establish Perth city as a safe and re-energised destination that is open for business and ready to welcome back the community,” he said.

Increased hygiene practices have also been top of mind for Colliers International, which manages GDI Property Group’s CBD assets, including 197 St Georges Terrace.

Colliers general manager Jamie Tassicker said his team immediately undertook a review of its incident management plan once the pandemic hit.

“Tenants wanted assurance that we’re managing the building as well as possible, given the current situation,” Mr Tassicker told Business News.

“It includes simple things like the appropriate signage at entry points to the building and around lift lobby areas, covering off on social distancing requirements, good hygiene habits and the COVIDSafe app.”

Mr Tassicker said tenants’ main concerns had been focused on cleaning scopes and frequencies for high-touch points: lift buttons, door handles and bathrooms.

This also extended to end-of-trip facilities, which owner GDI had decided to reopen due to the low number of COVID cases and an indication by tenants they were less likely to use public transport during these times.

“We’ve been offering deep cleans to tenants before they actually come in to their spaces,” Mr Tassicker said.

“We’ve also done some microbial testing of our cooling towers as another assurance, just to make sure the air-conditioning systems are working and providing healthy, clean air within the building.”

He said about 90 per cent of businesses, including Colliers, had returned to 197 St Georges Terrace, but that didn’t necessarily mean all employees were back at their desks, with a significant portion continuing to work from home.

Neither has there been a rush back to the office at ASX-listed property giant Dexus.

The business’s executive general manager of office, Kevin George, said it was still relatively quiet at Dexus’ 240 St Georges Terrace property, which houses 3,700 people at capacity.

“We were preparing for 20 to 30 per cent [occupancy] across the board and thought Perth and Brisbane would potentially be higher, given they seem to be more on top of the infection rate than Victoria or NSW,” Mr George told Business News.

That sentiment was based on a survey Dexus conducted in mid-May, in which its Perth tenants estimated 31 per cent of staff would return to the premises in May.

Interestingly, these businesses indicated they had no plans to reach 100 per cent of their tenancy any time soon, anticipating just 73 per cent of staff would use the building by August.

Mr George said 240 St Georges Terrace had 17 passenger lifts, so coordinating workers to their floors had not yet been an issue, given the low number of staff returning.

He said while it was too early to make judgements on how COVID-19 would affect future commercial property demand, from a business continuity perspective the physical office still had an important role to play, particularly when it came to client engagement.

“Most companies are very keen to get back on a more normal footing in the workplace,” Mr George said.

“The workplace is a strategic lever for business to drive culture.

“Most business leaders you talk to recognise [that] for them to win, they need their people collaborating and innovating, and that energy of the office.”

Future

Technology could start to play a greater role in the office in the near future, with real estate services firm JLL anticipating new tech apps that reconfigure spaces for social distancing protocols to become the new normal.

This includes tracking devices to monitor office seating, phone apps to call lifts, and the increased use of apps to order coffee to avoid queuing.

“In the social distancing era we see two options for corporate tenants to consider for their office space,” JLL head of tenant representation Australia Michael Greene said.

“They can choose to refit the office space, but this is expensive and unlikely to happen in the short term as companies seek to contain costs in the current environment. 

“The second option is to adapt work protocols to address social distancing requirements, such as every second desk occupied, split teams so only 50 per cent of the workforce is in the office tenancy at any time, and a move to allocated desks for the foreseeable future.”

Ray White head of agency operations Andrew Freeman said for the majority of businesses, the development of a vaccine for COVID-19 would largely influence their future office requirements.

“For the past couple of weeks there has been a lot of uncertainty,” Mr Freeman told Business News

“The leasing side of things dried up dramatically, but we’re now starting to see some more leasing deals done.

“There probably will be a shuffling of offices as people’s requirements dramatically change, whether it be to increase or decrease size.”

Mr Freeman said on a state-by-state basis, WA’s commercial property market was anticipated to fare relatively better than its east coast counterparts.

“I think at a transactional level there will be differences,” he said.

“In relation to COVID-19, WA has protected itself a lot better than other states, so restrictions will look differently there, as will, of course, business activity.

“So we should see more confidence in the WA markets.”

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