Auckland CBD is banking on a return to office working - but is it best for productivity?
Auckland moves to alert level 2 from Monday, but experts don't expect corporate city dwellers to flock back to the office in a hurry.
While businesses will be hoping for a return to normality with tens of thousands of Aucklanders back in the central business district, ideally spending up large, this is not likely the case as cases continue to rise among easing restrictions.
About 130,000 people work in Auckland CBD. But for many Aucklanders, working from home has become favourable; cutting out commute times and boosting productivity.
Loosening lockdown restrictions despite Covid-19 case rises will make many Kiwis anxious about returning to the office and returning to public transport for the daily commute.
Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck said she expected people to return to office working in a phased approach over the next few weeks, with offices at about 50 per cent capacity, similarly to how workers trickled back after the first lockdown.
"I do think some people will be raring to go and get out again and there may be some people who are a little bit more cautious. We're under no illusion ... level 2 is still quite challenging in the Auckland city centre," Beck said, adding that operating at that alert level was still "very difficult" for retail and hospitality businesses.
The move to level 2 in Auckland last time was challenging as there were no international students and few visitors. It would again be tough, Beck said, as domestic students would be heading into mid-semester break from September 7.
"We're hopeful that we do still get people keen to do things, albeit within the restrictions.
"It's probably going to be a mix though - they'll be some people really keen to get going again and others that might be a bit more cautious."
Auckland city centre lost about $60 million in retail trade during level 3 the first time around. Over level 2 during that time, trading levels were down between 60 and 70 per cent in the city centre. Many commented on the lack of people in the area.
"If last time is anything to go by, level 2 was a gradual return," she said.
"I remember going into the office as soon as it was level 2 and noticing that on average offices were 50:50 and people were very cautious about keeping distance."
The number of workers returning to their offices would, however, largely depend on Covid-19 cases that would be reported at the end of the week.
She said Auckland city centre's recovery would much slower if workers delayed their returning to their office locations.
"Having those large employers back and [workers] able to buy a coffee or a lunch in their local businesses will make an enormous difference."
Lizzi Whaley, owner of commercial interior design company Spaceworks, says she found running her business under alert level 3 more difficult the first time around.
The Karangahape Rd-based business, which does a lot of work in the regions, has been working well under lockdown despite the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and plans to continue to promote flexi- and remote-working once lockdown restrictions are eased.
A big advocate for working from home, Whaley said working from home two to three days per week allowed staff more flexibility and engagement with their families. It also showed a high level of trust between an employer and employee and in turn higher levels of mutual loyalty.
Whaley said it would likely take a while for New Zealanders, particularly Aucklanders, to feel comfortable and confident to return to working from the office and using public transport again.
She warned that employers should not force staff to return to working full-time from the office - and that they should be allowed to continue to work from home if that suited them.
Some people were experiencing the effects of "lockdown fatigue" - mental exhaustion - brought about through a combination of anxiety, juggling work and home schooling, along with general health fears of Covid-19.
"Just because we're [coming out] of lockdown, doesn't mean we're out of a pandemic."
Spaceworks would be encouraging its team to continue to work two to three days a week from home: "It allows us to have diversity, to have those quieter productive moments but still allows us to come into the office and engage with our peers, which I think is important for our culture and connectivity."
Whaley said businesses needed to be supportive of their workers and to individual needs around flexibility.
"I think, as we start to come out of lockdown again, it should be a phased approach so people can develop their confidence and [find] what works best for them."
Employers needed to let staff return to office working "on their own timetable", she said.
"The obligation of business is to be as supportive as you're expecting your staff to be to you in terms of their output," Whaley said.
"I think businesses will get more out of their staff if they appreciate they've got to let people do it in their own way."
Heading into level 2 next week, she said it was important there was good communication between an employer and staff and that they let staff make their own choices about when and if they wanted to return to work in the office.
"Getting around each other and seeing each other is an important way of coming out of fatigue but I don't necessarily think it needs to be 'hey, let's all be in the office together' - because that in itself can be overwhelming."
Spaceworks had a roster for when its staff could be in the office when New Zealand moved from level 3 to 2 the first time - it had no more than 10 people in the office at one time and ensured that most people would see each other at least once a week.
"We ran that for three to four weeks until I started to get a sense that people were feeling more confident about coming back into the office."
Come Monday, Whaley anticipates that not many people would take a big leap and return to their city offices unless it was a requirement by their employer.
"I think people will slowly phase back in and I think that's ideal."