Brisbane CBD businesses facing existential threat after COVID-19 with people preferring to work from home

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Two days into a lockdown last year, a Brisbane sommelier knew something had to change.

With international and domestic travellers shut out for the most part and Brisbane CBD workers turning remote, 35-year-old Federico Dordoni hatched a plan to take wine tasting online.

Months later, he says no amount of innovation has replaced what was once a bustling city centre before the pandemic.

Mr Dordoni says his Grape Therapy winery on Adelaide Street has scaled down from six to four days, with Wednesdays the next to go.

“Thursday, Friday were the biggest days … where we used to get workers coming down a bit early because they had an early finish,” he said.

“We [now] have less than 50 per cent of the usual trade.”

Organisational experts say workplaces alike were in the dark as to how to continue functioning in and out of lockdowns.

Professor Frederik Anseel from the University of New South Wales called it an “invasive crisis”, which has put Brisbane’s CBD and the rest of the world on the brink of a workplace “paradigm shift”.

With the option for more autonomy and flexibility in the workplace, Professor Anseel said how much freedom employers give and employees take will be a lasting “future struggle” — one impacting many aspects of life.

In a monthly survey of office landlords, the Property Council of Australia has revealed today that only 60 per cent of Brisbane workers are back in the city — a drop in numbers that has not been seen since this time last year.

The council’s Jen Williams said Brisbane offices had been operating at about 70 per cent of pre-COVID levels for a year, until south-east Queensland’s most recent shutdown.

Last month, 11 local government areas snapped into a lockdown that extended to eight days, after an outbreak of the contagious delta strain among several school communities.

Ms Williams said until recently, “Brisbane had bounced back really fast from previous lockdowns.”

She said mandated stay-at-home orders and lasting restrictions like mask wearing has deterred many from the office, with workers adapting and growing to like remote work.

“This is absolutely a direct result of people embracing flexibility in spending more of their time working from home, or in suburban centres, rather than coming into the office every day,” she said.

‘It pretty much wasn’t an option’

Kristie May said “if COVID wasn’t around”, she wouldn’t have had the flexibility she now enjoys working at an IT firm in the Brisbane CBD.

“[The pandemic] just opened up the whole ability to work from home,” she said.

Ms May, 38, lives on Brisbane’s northside and said the pandemic fast-tracked possibilities of having a family and keeping up with her career.

“In 2019 I fell pregnant, which was sort of just before COVID hit,” she said.

“I [previously] would have had to stop working maybe even eight weeks before giving birth.

“But, I was able to work from home.”

She now continues to work two days remotely and three days in the city.

It has not always been that way – she was not offered remote arrangements before the pandemic and had previously lost a job for the same reason, moving from Canberra to Brisbane in 2016.

“My mum fell ill and I had to come back up to Queensland to look after her.

“I asked my workplace at the time whether I could work from home and they basically said that they can’t have any flexibility.”

Ms May believes it would be different now.

Change could impact Olympics

The Property Council has started monitoring “peak” and “low” days, showing many Brisbane workers are opting for similar arrangements.

Last month, just over 60 per cent of the pre-pandemic workforce was in the city on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and less than half showed for Monday and Friday.

“People are choosing to work more flexibly,” Ms Williams said.

“But what we’ve found is that … most people do want to be in the city for at least some period of time.”

Ms May, like many employees, said she would not consider going fully remote as she still enjoyed “seeing people face to face” and the local coffee and breakfast on the way to the office.

“Not just about our workplaces,” she said.

Ms Williams said changing worker habits could even impact something as large as the 2032 Olympic Games in Brisbane.

“Post pandemic, we know that there is going to be a heightened interest in Queensland and particularly Brisbane,” she said.

“The city centre is where people congregate, where ideas are created and [it is] the centre of our social and cultural institutions.

“There have been generations of investment in our city that we can’t just turn our backs on.”

Ms Williams said efforts needed to be made to ensure the CBD, “continues on a growth trajectory.”

The council ran a “Fridays in The City” campaign from May this year, offering workers numerous activities, events and incentives towards the end of the week.

While it resulted in a 12 per cent foot traffic increase and a $5 million retail uplift, Ms Williams said the Delta variant was disbanding the prospect of similar initiatives.

“The uncertainty that goes with [the Delta variant] makes it hard to run a campaign like Fridays in The City, which was about a consecutive six-week campaign,” she said.

It was now looking to vaccines as the solution, which could include vaccination hubs in the city centre or using vaccine IDs.

“Masks in the workplace, border closures, shifting goalposts for vaccination targets and the risk of snap lockdowns, have contributed to an increase…[in] working from home,” Ms Williams told the ABC.

“We’re not getting out of this until we have a really high percentage of the population vaccinated.”

‘A new model of working’

University of Queensland organisational psychology lecturer Annabelle Neall said the long-term workplace changes brought on by the pandemic would remain for some time.

“The effects of the pandemic will last well beyond once we hit our vaccination rates and targets and our borders reopen,” Dr Neall said.

Both Dr Neall and Professor Anseel referred to a paradigm shift in work culture – where employees have more flexibility.

Professor Anseel said the workplace was moving away from “monitoring and even controlling” employees to individual arrangements where employees have “autonomy”.

Ms Williams called for “leadership” within organisations to create a space where employees “actively choose to be part of”.

Dr Neall said firms need to highlight the social and collaborative benefits of in-person workplaces, with a renewed focus on the mental and physical health of employees.

“So [implementing] physical barriers in terms of the potential for spread between employees, increased cleaning procedures,” she said.

“But making sure that they’re psychologically safe, that there is security in knowing what happens if we go back into another lockdown – what the transition arrangements are.”

Remember where you ‘used to hang out’

Mr Dordoni said the “buzz” of a Brisbane Friday night “is not there”.

“We don’t get that trade, because everyone wants to work from home,” he said.

Mr Dordoni urged workers to “remember the businesses [where] you used to hang out.”

“Because we are not going to be there for long if there’s no support.”

By Lia Walsh (Original ABC Article)