Victoria’s coronavirus lockdown rules end for some workers, but Melbourne CBD may be forever changes.

Melbourne office workers are now allowed back to work — but after nine months of working from home, the future of the CBD still remains unclear.

When the workers from tech consultancy firm Digital First got together for the first time since March, it wasn’t at their usual office in the city. Instead, the team hired a boardroom through Victory Offices in a high-rise just a few blocks away.

Back in September, and in the middle of Melbourne’s second lockdown, managing director Grant McWhirter decided not to renew Digital First’s office lease.

For a tech company already fully integrated in the cloud, working remotely didn’t present any insurmountable challenges.

“We thought about social distancing, the effort of getting up to the floor in the lift, and the increased commute for employees, and we sort of said, ‘You know what? We don’t need to work in the city’,” Mr McWhirter said.

Since November 30, businesses have been allowed to get back into the office with up to 25 per cent of their staff, but that’s unlikely to lure Mr McWhirter and his team back to a traditional working model.

“We don’t know how long the pandemic’s going to go on for and it’s not impacting our business. At some point, we might reconsider or look at alternatives, but I don’t believe we’ll go back to a five-day-a-week office, with all the staff in the office.”

Infection fears may slow return to the Office

In an October survey of its Melbourne tenants, Dexus — one of the country’s largest corporate landlords — found two of the biggest concerns for businesses returning to work once restrictions were lifted were the risk of infection, and staff willingness to use public transport to and from work.

Businesses told Dexus they expected public transport usage by their workers to drop from 70 per cent down to 40 per cent for the first three months after returning to work.

For Digital First’s Mr McWhirter, the daily commute to work was a major factor when deciding to give up the firm’s CBD lease, but he’s also reluctant to do away with face-to-face interaction entirely.

“The team are quite happy working from home at the moment, but we are aware that that won’t last forever,” Mr McWhirter says.

“We’re considering options such as coworking spaces where we can have more flexibility, rather than the commitment of an office five days a week.”

Flexible spaces for uncertain time

In the weeks following the end of Melbourne’s lockdown, flexible office space provider Victory Offices received a significant increase in enquiries – particularly at their suburban locations.

“The pandemic has shown a lot of businesses that they don’t need to lock themselves into a commercial lease,” Misha Baxter, Victory Offices Global General Manager said. “Working from home has allowed organisations to learn they don’t need a big home base or HQ, so they can spread themselves out with lots of different hubs for their employees.

Many businesses are now setting up “hubs” in the suburbs to reduce the need for their employees to commute to the CBD and stagger the number of people and days needed per week. This also allows them to ensure the same standards of furniture, technology, and security are met, with meeting rooms and collaborative spaces available as well to help maintain teamwork and communications.

“Then people can still work from home but also have an alternative place to work too. Then they might only need to come into the city for occasional meetings.” Misha remarked.

Many well-established companies are now rethinking workspace requirements including using flexible office space as they realise the benefits of having the flexibility to rent real estate on a shorter-term basis and the exact size of office they need, at the exact time they need it, with the ability to scale up or down and customise and tailor-fit their office space according to their business needs.

They are looking to conserve cash and increase flexibility rather than take the risk of locking themselves in to a long-term office lease and having the furniture and utility overheads on top of that.

It’s now been nine months since Victorian workers have been in the office, and the flow-on effect of their absence is being keenly felt in Melbourne’s CBD. But many businesses are seeing positive changes in the way they work and how this will transform their business office space needs in the future.

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