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Staying at home (2)

by Ian Apperley
All the dinosaurs have been out over the last few days trying to bully public servants and other staff back to working in less than humane conditions in CBD offices because the retail sector is suffering. The Finance Minister and some councillors have all had a crack, their toothless roars echoing through empty city concrete canyons.

The workers, thanks to Covid, have finally seen what is on the other side of the particular hell called hot-desking, and are in no hurry to head back to their battery farm desks rubbing elbows with cellmates. A noisy purgatory stuffed full of bodies trying to weave their way around pillars to find a quiet spot to concentrate and get work done.

It is no wonder that New Zealand’s productivity is so low and the pressure to drive the sheep back into their pens is disingenuous. It is up there with the politicking of sacrificing contract staff for point scoring and encouraging the entire country to “Love Local” when tenders for large pieces of technology and construction work are still given to international companies.

Why the panic on the part of politicians? It is an election year, and the Wellington CBD is not what it was. Not only that, but also the infrastructure is in a ruinous state, and the City Council is able to underwrite the greatest polluter in the city to the tune of more than $25million but it can’t invest in simple cycleways. Things are not looking at all well managed.

Working from home is misrepresented by power freaks and task managers. The politicians are often in the thrall of such progressive institutes as the Chamber of Commerce and the Hospitality Industry, not to mention the property developers. All three can see their fortunes wavering.

And it is not like they did not see it coming. The advice was given formally and informally during Lockdown on the ramifications for the CBD once the level was reduced. That advice was ignored and months were lost that could have been used for strategic planning, thinking of a new way of seeing the city, being innovative, and listening to the community.

We now know that some large corporations are planning to downsize their rental footprint, in some cases by 60%, in what was already a hyper-expensive market.

A significant work-from-home experiment, published by the Oxford University Press and subsequently the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2014, examined the effects of having staff work from their homes. The results were astounding, and, given that our technology today is significantly more robust and advanced than five years ago, it could be postulated in today’s world that we would see even more significant benefits.

Here is what the experiment found:

Performance of home workers increased by 13%.
Attrition fell by 50%.
Productivity increased between 20% and 30%.
The company reduced rental costs by $2000 per annum per employee.
Sick leave dropped.
Mental & Physical health increased.
Costs to employees dropped.

Who would have thought?

Who would have thought that having the flexibility to work when required, concentrate when needed, not be jammed into poor office space, pay exorbitant transport costs, contribute to the environment by not travelling as much, get back hours of your day from commuting, spend more time with your family, save money on expensive lunch options, have time to think and create wouldn’t pay dividends?

Who could have guessed that following lockdown, which put people into a mandatory work from home situation, many of us would not want to go back to the old normal?

Of course, not everyone wants to work from home. Social isolation is an issue. However, a Herald survey shows that 60% of people are interested in working from home the majority of the time. Plan for a CBD with 40% fewer office workers and you are heading in the right direction.

Go back to your offices peasants – go back to your old life, go back to ninety minutes a day on a crowded bus, if it turns up, or train. Go back to $8 a sandwich, traffic jams, car crashes, diesel pollution. Make sure you buy a t-shirt from a retailer once per week and spend every dollar you have to help the economy. Do your bit. Sacrifice yourself.

Can you see how idiotic that sounds?

People have got a taste of working from home and kind, talented, innovative companies are letting them be flexible. And there is also evidence that many people are not only wanting to to avoid the CBD, they are thinking about leaving the city.

Because living on the coast, living in the country, living in a small community is immensely attractive. Look at the latest house price increases between Wellington and her regional areas. Wellington is flatlining, Kapiti, the Hutt, Porirua, and the Wairarapa are booming. And in those same regional areas, retail is booming too.

Companies that provide for flexible working over those that do not will become increasingly attractive to workers. Research has been unequivocal: flexibility is the highest priority when people are looking for work. This means the CBD must adapt or it will die.

Right now, our leaders need to face facts and understand that the strategy of bullying people back into the city will not work. Then, they can start to think about what will.

10 comments:

  1. Derek Wilshere, 11. June 2020, 14:43

    A very cogent and thought provoking piece Ian …. starting to help define the “New Normal”.

     
  2. K, 11. June 2020, 15:22

    Working from home will, and should, be a big part of all employers’ flexibility plans going forward. But there are thousands of retail, service, transport & hospitality jobs in the Wellington CBD that will be lost if government departments and big corporates all decide to keep their employees WFH instead of bringing them back in (even partially). I agree it makes sense for a lot of CBD office space to be converted to residential apartments, but that can’t be done quickly, let alone overnight, and will take years/decade+ to accomplish. Right now we need those who have 100% secure government jobs to be supporting employees in precarious jobs. It is disheartening to hear so many people with safe paychecks equate returning to work as some sort of horrific task, without seemingly considering what it means to thousands of others facing unemployment. They come across as spoiled brats to be honest.

     
  3. Andrew, 11. June 2020, 16:49

    Look, I’d be happy to go back to the office if it was a welcoming and productive place to work but the reality is that office employees have been reduced to costs which accountants will minimise with surgical precision. I’d save on coffee, loo rolls, heating and probably be able to have to a cheaper internet connection but that’s all nullified by the hot-desked, squeezed-in reality of the modern office.
    Maybe I’m a crybaby but I’ve worked in offices for a long time, the situation has got worse and worse over the years and now it’s just not worth putting up with the stress and misery. I’ll stay at home until that changes or I retire, which ever comes first.

     
  4. Edmund, 11. June 2020, 20:23

    Ian, thank you for stating so eloquently my thoughts as well. I am a manager of a software development team. The prospect of working remotely as a manager was not something I would ever believe could work. Now, after having been forced into it, I appreciate the benefits. The key lesson I have learned is that I need to actively communicate with my team members because I can no longer have a quick conversation over a cubicle wall. I also need to be conscious of their home commitments – school drop-offs, medical appointments etc. Once these things are understood and everyone is keeping in touch, the barriers to working from home largely disappear.

    I am mortified at the prospect of returning to an office with cubicles, hot-desking and all of those other “modern working environment” cost-driven initiatives.

    The industrial revolution resulted in people leaving their home workplaces and small communities to work as “human capital” in factories, offices and cities. I live in hope that we are on the cusp of being able to reverse that process.

     
  5. Ron Beernink, 12. June 2020, 10:19

    Well said, Ian! Allowing people to work from home helps to avoid the congestion that we are seeing again on the main routes into the city as everyone is expected to be back in their offices. It also allows families to buy cheaper houses further afield, helping to boost the economies of our regions.

     
  6. Ralf, 12. June 2020, 10:51

    Yes, instead of thinking about the Covid-19 disruption as an opportunity and an agent of change it is back to business as usual. The climate emergency (which our council declared) makes reducing commuter traffic a more than worthwhile goal and the lockdown reduced commuter traffic a lot. So we should try to keep it that way and not be “Oh, but the CBD needs trapped workers as shoppers”.

    You could try to make the city a shopping destination in itself, e.g. pedestrianise Lambton Quay – no cars and no buses either. Move the buses to Featherston Street and remove cars from there as well (bikes might get a separate bike lane, there should be enough space if cars are removed; bikes would be allowed on Lambton Quay but only with a reduced speed limit (10km/h), same goes for delivery vehicles or tradies). Ideally shoppers would use Public Transport (of course city dwellers should use bikes or walk), but you could think about some parking area at the edge of the CBD near a highway exit. LRT will never come, but LRT starting at the Interislander Terminal (future Ferry Terminal) could be a starting point also for shoppers who could get some parking in that area as well.

     
  7. Northland, 12. June 2020, 18:59

    I welcome the flexibility to work from home or office but there are also downsides to working from home that need to be born in mind.

    Homes are rarely provisioned with a proper desk (adjustable to avoid OOS complaints), adequate room and a suitable environment for concentration. Homes are often too small (think 1 bed apartments), too cold (think Wellington rentals) or too noisy (think suburban family home with 4 kids). All of these environments are likely to be higher stress environments than office working.

    Additionally, working from home can, sometimes, lead to poor work life balance rather than enhanced work life balance. How many people are able to leave their work behind at the end of the day when they are always ‘available’?

    Lastly, working from home can be an isolating experience. It removes casual contact and ‘coffee machine’ banter that happens naturally in a lot of workplaces. For some employees, coercion or ‘encouragement’ to work from home for long periods can lead to mental health issues.

     
  8. Dave Armstrong, 15. June 2020, 19:32

    Isn’t there a middle ground? Working from home reduces emissions and the commuting bulge. And many people are just as if not more productive. But also, having a vibrant CBD is good and sometimes work meetings etc. are much more fun and productive than interminable zoom meetings. [via twitter]

     
  9. Ross Clark, 16. June 2020, 3:34

    We will still need CBD offices – but they will be places we meet when we need to meet in the flesh, not places we commute to every day. Peak journey-to-work volumes will end up (I think) being well down on what they were, and many who do commute in will do so after the morning peak; and leaving before the evening peak starts. And because people aren’t having to come in during the am. peak, I also see people using their cars to commute, for the simple reason that cars will be faster.

     
  10. BrooklynBrooklyn, 19. June 2020, 20:52

    The fact that house prices are increasing dramatically in Wellington-adjacent areas is because no one can afford a damn house in Wellington and ever more people are commuting into the city then back to e.g Masterton. This is pricing local people and first-home buyers out of the market. The solution to Wellington’s problems is not to gentrify Wairarapa, Kapiti and Porirua even further.

     

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