COVID-19 has accelerated the trend towards decentralised and distributed offices by proving that big business doesn’t always have to be conducted in big cities.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed how and where we do our jobs. While working from home is unlikely to become the ‘new normal’, Alex Abell – Head of Direct Property at APN Property Group – says this impromptu experiment with remote work will fast-track the decentralisation of CBD jobs.
“This isn’t the death of the workplace, because companies and workers will always want the human element and the culture that comes when people get together to collaborate in person,” Alex says. “There’ll always be a need for spaces where people can do that without the distractions that come with working at home. But I think we will see momentum shift further towards decentralisation, as businesses question whether or not they should be paying a premium for office spaces in crowded central business districts.”
With COVID-19 proving that geography doesn’t have to be a barrier to productivity, Alex expects more businesses to relocate or distribute a portion of their workers to office spaces that aren’t necessarily in the heart of the city. In this sense, Singapore – where the government’s Urban Redevelopment Authority has reduced the supply of land for offices in the CBD in recent years and led a push to build satellite locations for suburban workers – offers us a glimpse of our future.
By shunning CBD real estate in favour of a distributed set of offices in lower-cost locations, businesses can bring themselves closer to their workers, providing a convenient and safe environment for their workers to progress a company’s culture and solve problems face-to-face. Such a move would likely be welcomed by employees – before COVID-19, workers in Australia’s major cities would typically spend more than an hour travelling to and from work each day.
While newly remote workers might be missing the camaraderie that comes with the office, they’re not missing that commute. A recent Citrix survey of 1000 Australian office workers found that the reduced stress of not having to commute and the ability to spend more time with family or doing leisure activities were among the top benefits of the COVID-led mass migration towards remote work.
“This isn’t the death of the workplace, because companies and workers will always want the human element” – Alex Abell
Shorter commutes could also mean less risk of exposure to infectious diseases for workers on public transport. While Australia’s efforts to contain the coronavirus have been quite successful so far, this will continue to be a concern as long as there is no vaccine – and beyond, as businesses seek to future-proof their offices against potential pandemic events.
“If a business has distributed its workers across multiple locations, it has a distinct advantage if a case arises,” Alex says. “They can close that location and send those workers into self-isolation, as opposed to having to shut down their entire operation if all their workers have been sharing the same space.”
Aside from being a boon for workers, Alex says bringing more offices to the suburbs and away from the CBD could also have exciting implications for urban planning.
“The traditional flow of commuters to and from the CBD puts a strain on infrastructure and leads to a disproportionate amount of resources being put towards, essentially, two to three hours of peak usage every day,” he says. “Moving big business to the suburbs and redirecting the flow of people should lead to a redistribution of those resources, and also paves the way for more land in the CBD to be used for housing, parks and recreational facilities.”
Coronavirus has had a transformative global effect, and it’s not done with us yet. But as restrictions ease and Australians go back to work, we may look back on the move towards offices that better suit our lifestyles as a positive lasting impact of the pandemic.