As Victoria recorded its third day of zero coronavirus cases this week, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said on Saturday that white-collar workers may be able to return to their offices before Christmas but there would be no quick or wholesale return to the workplace.
National Australia Bank became one of the country’s first major employers to encourage its staff outside Victoria to return to the office this week, telling its 34,000 employees it wanted to “unlock the benefits of in-person collaboration” again.
Victoria’s next lifting of restrictions is slated for after November 8, when the 25-kilometre movement restriction and “ring of steel” separating Melbourne and regional Victoria will be removed.
Under the state’s lockdown rules, people who can work from home should do so, and Premier Daniel Andrews said after the first wave of coronavirus that offices would be among the last settings to return to normality.
Professor Sutton said on Saturday that any return to office workspaces would need to be carefully managed but some could be back by Christmas.
“If we can see that these chains of transmission are in check then there is a reasonable chance of a slow and steady but graduated return to the workplace,” he said.
“But it won’t be wholesale on a particular day, it will be a consideration about what it means to be able to go back to workplaces and maintain that distance and not be packed into office spaces, which, you know, are obviously a higher risk in indoor setting.”
Asked if office workers would return before Christmas, Professor Sutton said he was hopeful but pointed out “pinch points” such as public transport and elevators needed to be closely examined.
“I think some can and should return, but again, alway depending on the numbers,” he said. “Clearly there’s an economic activity by virtue of return to work especially here in the CBD, and that should be a consideration, but it has to be safe and steady.”
Professor Sutton said the experience of this year could “change the workforce forever”.
“People have discovered things about how they can be supported in remote working arrangements ongoing and maybe people will choose that for some of the flexibility and wellbeing issues,” he said.
Victoria initially recorded one COVID-19 case on Saturday that was later deemed a false positive, taking the daily tally to zero and the state’s 14-day rolling case average to 2.4. The state had 71 active cases on Saturday, all in metropolitan Melbourne, and had two “mystery cases” with an unknown source in the fortnight to October 28.
Big business across Australia has been cautious about ordering staff back into the workplace, preferring to leave it up to employees or in many instances instructing them to stay home. Between March and August this year, 52,000 – or one in 10 – Melbourne city workers lost their jobs.
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry workplace relations director Scott Barklamb noted “not all work and not all roles can be done solely from home in future”. At the same time, he said “the message must be to empower and trust employers and employees to agree the best mix of working arrangements for them”.
Michael is a state political reporter for The Age.
Michael Koziol is deputy editor of The Sun-Herald, based in Sydney.