After weeks of dormancy, the pulse of office life is quickening.
While government continues to urge employers to allow staff to work from home where possible, around the country workplaces are being cleaned, desks rearranged, signs posted and bottles of hand sanitiser laid out in preparation for the gradual return of office workers.
After weeks of seeing and hearing slightly fuzzy versions of colleagues via Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype and other video-conferencing platforms, people will soon get to mingle with workmates in real life.
The roads have already been getting busier as schools have reopened and restrictions on business and other activities have gradually begun to ease.
But after two months or more of working remotely, returning to the office is going to be a jolt.
Almost half (46 per cent) of us in a job were working from home in late April and early May, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and while it has been challenging, particularly for those trying to juggle work with home schooling responsibilities, foregoing the daily commute has opened up more time in the day for other activities.
While almost two-thirds of households admitted to watching more television and videos, more than a third said they were spending more time fixing up their house and garden, playing games, reading, doing hobbies and cooking.
Reflecting this, more than 80 per cent thought working from home had improved their work-life balance, a survey conducted by Venture Insights for NBN Co showed.
Adding to the reluctance of some is the fear of possibly catching the virus, particularly for those with suppressed immune systems or chronic underlying conditions that increase their vulnerability.
It would be naive of people to say that everyone will just resume normality in the next six months and the whole COVID challenge will be forgotten.- CBRE ACT managing director Zoe Ferrari
The situation has led to speculation the days of the office tower are numbered.
But Colliers ACT chief executive Paul Powderly dismisses such talk.
"Everyone is saying the market's bad and offices are going to be 25 per cent empty and no-one's going to be in the office. That's bollocks," the real estate executive says.
Powderly reckons the efficiency gained by having people working in the same space will convince most businesses to reopen their offices, while the space required to ensure social distancing will offset any permanent shift in the number of staff working from home.
Regardless, workers will be returning to an office environment that has been altered in ways both confronting and subtle.
"It would be naive of people to say that everyone will just resume normality in the next six months and the whole COVID challenge will be forgotten," says Zoe Ferrari, the ACT managing director for property firm CBRE.
As a sign of this, Safe Work Australia advice for employers on how to ensure physical distancing in the office runs for 12 pages and covers everything from staggered shifts and lift limits to hotdesking and workspace layout.
Canberra Business Chamber interim chief executive officer Graham Catt says his members are reopening their offices in a "COVID-safe way", including dividing staff into groups or shifts so there are not too many in the office at any one time.
One of those adopting the approach is Colliers, which reopened its Canberra office early this month, the first branch of the national organisation to do so.
"After eight weeks a lot of people are over it," Powderly says. "Skype calls, whatever it is, it can't be as efficient as face-to-face engagement."
Colliers' workforce has been divided into two teams, blue and white, that for a week at a time for the past three weeks have taken it in turns to work at the office and from home.
Having between 20 and 30 staff in the office at a time has meant the firm has been able to meet the requirement that there be at least four square metres of space per person.
In addition to making sure desks are well-spaced and there is plenty of sanitiser on hand, staff have been instructed to only bring in food they will eat that day, to eat at their desks rather than congregate in the kitchen and get their coffee from a cafe rather than brew it in the office.
Powderly says that because almost all of his staff drive to work and the building they are in is currently only lightly occupied, concerns about crowding on public transport and in lifts have not been an issue.
He is keen to wean staff off video-conferencing and back to wearing business attire: "Just getting people back into that formality of treating work like work ... people's mindset and the way in which they approach it."
The challenges facing employers in other workplaces and cities appear more daunting.
There has been a long-standing trend toward hotdesking and squeezing more workers into workspaces, with a density of one worker per 10 square metres becoming common.
"In some of the bigger markets and bigger corporates, some of those guys have been operating in densities as tight as one to 10," says Ferrari. "That's absolutely going to have to be re-thought in terms of how they transition people back into the office with social distancing front and centre for the next few months."
Staggered shifts and fire stairs are among the ideas being touted to get around the monumental problem in large buildings of getting thousands of workers to their office safely.
Commonwealth departments are among those who will be grappling with these issues.
Fifty-seven per cent of the federal public service has been working from home during the crisis and planning is under way to bring them back back to the office.
Home Affairs, for instance, says it has received a range of advice from the Australian Public Service Commission to assist in planning for a COVID-safe transition of staff back to their usual workplaces.
"As more staff gradually return to the office, the department will maintain physical distancing principles and continue to follow the advice from the Department of Health, Comcare, Safe Work Australia, and state and territory health authorities," the department says.
The Community and Public Sector Union says it is watching the process closely. National secretary Melissa Donnelly is particularly concerned about hotdesking.
"The CPSU is aware of some workplaces continuing to use hotdesking despite the health risks," she says. "We want to minimise hotdesking and, where it does occur, work to ensure there is adequate cleaning materials and procedures between shifts."
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