Dileepa Fonseka is a Stuff business journalist.
OPINION: “To be clear, what I wanted was to stay at home without my kids! Oh dear, be careful what you wish for.”
Someone messaged me that right at the start of one of Auckland’s lockdowns last year.
To my mind, he jinxed the country’s lockdown-free run by joking that a “little bit” of a lockdown wouldn’t go amiss to help him get his life in order. The next day, Auckland was in lockdown.
* US workers put on pants to return to the office, only to be on Zoom all day
* Why the rise in remote working does not mean the office is dead
* ‘Back to the office’ is not the best way to go
* Office re-entry is proving trickier than last year’s abrupt exit
For most of the pandemic, that is how we have viewed the idea of working from home – a nice break from the everyday drudgery of long commutes and a golden opportunity to make a dent in those piles of laundry that had clearly been nagging at us for years.
Those days are long gone, sometime during the last Auckland lockdown the concept turned into less of a symbol of worker liberation and more of a culture war about work ethic, suburbanists versus urbanists, anger at the ‘work from home’ Wellington bureaucracy and questions about Whether anyone actually wants to spend large chunks of their life doing household chores in-between Zoom calls.
Tech support worker Jadon Shiva is relieved to be back in an office after more than a year of working from home.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the theory was people would stay away from the office of their own volition.
An AUT Business School Wellbeing at Work survey shows half of workers are at least moderately anxious about returning to or working in an office.
New Covid-19 infections might have peaked, but they are still being recorded in their thousands, people are still being hospitalised, new variants are being detected and there are alarming reports of the hospital system being overwhelmed.
And plenty of people are back in the office regardless.
Google Mobility statistics show workplace attendance is 3% above the pre-pandemic baseline (a median figure derived from activity before the pandemic).
Fewer people are at the office in the larger centers of Auckland and Wellington, but the drops are not catastrophic, 10% in Auckland and 4% in Wellington.
Companies are also still opening new offices, 2degrees’ new HQ in central Auckland at the end of last year.
2degrees head of property Ben Blakemore says all workers have the option of working remotely, but the new office is luring them back.
“There are just things that the office is still really perfect for, especially if you get the chance to build it the way we have.”
Why are large numbers of people coming back to the office? Maybe part of the reason is that people don’t actually hate it.
Many complaints about the office are really about other failures. The failure to provide enough affordable housing near where people work, the failure to discourage congestion by taxing it, the failure to provide good childcare options, or the failure to put in place adequate low-emission public transport infrastructure.
Yale School of Public Health saliva testing expert Anne Wyllie has conducted research on the use of saliva PCR testing in the United States to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in offices.
She says going back to the office can be done safely with precautions such as surveillance testing, getting Covid-positive people to test negative before they come to work, ventilation, or simply ask people to wear masks in certain situations.
While some workers are coming back voluntarily, there is also pressure on them to come back, too. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson have both been quoted in the past encouraging government employees to come back to work, while US President Joe Biden made it part of his State of the Union Address.
The Detail: Technology and the big shift to working from home.
Tesla founder Elon Musk has also weighed in.
“Everyone at Tesla is required to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week. Moreover, the office must be where your actual colleagues are located, not some remote pseudo office,” he said.
“Tesla has and will create and actually manufacture the most exciting and meaningful products of any company on Earth. This will not happen by calling it in.”
From the perspective of some executives, people working from home just aren’t hungry, ambitious, or particularly engaged with their work.
Gallup’s 2022 report on the state of global workplace shows employee engagement at work was rising by a steady 1% a year until the pandemic hit, then it started going in the opposite direction.
In Australia and New Zealand, only 17% of employees described themselves as being actively engaged at work, one of the lowest levels in the world.
Octavius Black, chief executive of the culture change company The MindGym, has argued that remote working is a key cause of “the great resignation”, because it has weakened the connection employees have with their workplace.
So, yes, the culture war over working from home looks set to rage on, but that is surely also because the whole concept didn’t turn out to be all that great in the first place.