Christmas stalls return of workers to CBD office buildings

The property industry has called for a federal government road map to getting workers back into their CBD offices after the number of people returning stalled in the lead up to Christmas in most markets.

New figures from the Property Council of Australia have shown occupancy levels in major CBDs were still well below pre-COVID pandemic levels in December, with most building owners or managers not expecting to see any change for at least another three months.

Chief executive of the advocacy body Ken Morrison said driving workers back to the city is crucial to improving economic activity.

“Our CBDs are engine rooms of productivity, collaboration, innovation and enterprise,” Mr Morrison said.

“For every worker that returns to their office, that is more business for CBD cafes, restaurants, retail outlets and other service providers.

“We can’t afford to be complacent about their future without the right policy settings and incentives in place to get these vitally important engines of the Australian economy humming again.”

Local authorities have already moved to increase office capacity. NSW will repeal its public health order from December 14, which required people to work from home. Private sector companies in Melbourne can also have 50 per cent of workers back in the office from January 11.

“Recent decisions by the NSW and Victorian governments supporting the return to office workplaces are welcome, but we must keep the momentum going if we are to get our CBDs back to their pre-COVID levels of activity after the Christmas and New Year break,” Mr Morrison said.

Stephen Conry, chief executive of real estate agency JLL, said the return to work will be led by employers, with the decision likely based on culture over cost.

“I think 2021 will see a much bigger improvement in the return to work numbers. Victoria will be slower,” Mr Conry said.

“Some workers are saying they want to work from home but that is in conflict with what employers want and need. A good culture requires collaboration and teamwork.”

The rate of return to CBD offices in Sydney improved from October to December, but still remains under half capacity (45 per cent).

Having only emerged from lockdown in November, Melbourne workers heading back to the office almost doubled between October and this month, hitting 13 per cent.

Brisbane (61 per cent) and Perth (77 per cent) held steady between October and December. Darwin is almost back to normal, with occupancy now just 3 percentage points behind pre-COVID levels, sitting at 82 per cent in December.

Mr Conry said state governments should be encouraging public sector workers to move back to the office, with the first quarter of 2021 likely to see a surge of people returning.

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