Companies are slowly staggering their employees' office returns after a pandemic forced many to work from home. But for most, the return won't be as we know it.
Across New Zealand, inboxes are pinging with emails outlining the post-pandemic plan for work in real life.
Bosses are slowly beckoning people back to workplaces that have sat empty for a good chunk of the pandemic.
But this time it's a very different landscape - emails from work are peppered with talk of staggered returns, weeks split between home and office, twice-weekly RATs and masks.
For some work-from-homers, the return to the office in any capacity is a welcome relief. Some have missed the humdrum of the office, seeing workmates in person, and coffee made by a barista, not a Nespresso.
For others, it means rushing out the door, a lengthy commute, public transport woes and forking out cash for lunch. Not to mention the thought of squeezing into clothes that seem restrictive and cumbersome compared to the more relaxed work-from-home wardrobe.
In the past week, some of New Zealand's biggest corporations including Spark, Vodafone, Fonterra and AA Insurance started welcoming workers back.
In Auckland where Omicron has peaked, the roads are noticeably busier and public transport data from Thursday, April 7 shows 175,774 trips were made - an increase of 20 per cent from two weeks earlier.
But despite the call back to the office, the 9-5 in-office job has been given the Covid-shake-up.
Rather than rushing to fill empty chairs, companies are reflecting on the pandemic's lessons and looking at how, when and where employees perform at their best.
For most flexibility is key and hybrid is the clear winner. It's been dubbed "The Great Hybrid Return".
The hybrid 'tipping point'
Already an advocate of the four-day week, Andrew Barnes is passionate and excited about the hybrid "tipping point" New Zealand businesses are currently at.
The Perpetual Guardian chief executive wants bosses to think long and hard before demanding everyone trudge back to the office five days a week.
"We have educated our people for two years that we can do things differently, that they can be productive at home and use their time well," Barnes says over a video call.
"Why would we want everyone back in the office five days a week? Why would we want to return to how we used to work?"
Word on the street tells Barnes the hybrid model (where the workweek is split between home and in the office) is the way most businesses are going.
"It is going to be a hybrid - you will work from home and go to the office to meet and socialise.
"People will meet in the office and work will be done at home."
It's already in motion at Perpetual Guardian where the team work four days a week but get paid for five.
At the Queen St head office, Barnes has reduced the physical office space by two levels.
It's a cost-saver that means he can invest more money in people and satellite offices around New Zealand.
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Perpetual Guardian is one of many companies downsizing on space.
Just-released data from Colliers shows a clear rise in office vacancy rates since the start of the pandemic.
New figures show Auckland CBD's office vacancy rate increased from 4.7 per cent in December 2019 to 10.9 per cent in December 2021.
The research suggests the rates have peaked and 2022 "will become a pivotal year of change".
"While secondary vacant space is languishing, high quality, flexible and environmentally friendly office premises are outperforming," the research found.
In short, new, well-designed office spaces are the ones in demand.
The new offices of law firm MC - previously Meredith Connell - in Auckland's CBD are an example of sought-after new spaces worthy of the commute.
The new building includes:
• Offices with a wellness certification, including a reflection room where people can meditate, pray or simply reflect.
• A wild botanical-themed cafe/kitchen Te Kāuta - meaning kitchen or cookhouse - by Sophie Burns of Burning Red Design.
• New technology: staff were given the latest iPhones to use as their IDs, and there are link-ups to Zoom and Microsoft Teams on walls with big screens.
• 1600 live plants laid out terrarium-style in internal "gardens" that are visible across the floors.
• New furniture and no hot-desking - people have their own space with lockers long enough to hang full-length gowns.
• There's also a replica High Courtroom, complete with fluorescent panel lighting and a coat of arms above the judge's chair to allow lawyers and their clients to practise in a life-like courtroom setting.
Back at Perpetual Guardian, Barnes says business leaders need to rethink how they use spaces to make them better to work in for the days people are in the office.
He says he can see his Queen St office getting smaller still.
"One floor is the canteen bar area, the other is the main entrance, office, and meeting rooms and I'm not sure the meeting room is all that relevant anymore."
Barnes says traditional employers who want bums on seats in the office will meet resistance and most likely see employees go elsewhere.
"Bosses have to come to grips with this change. We are conditioned to think that working longer, working in the office is how we did it. That now has to change."
University of Otago human resources expert Paula O'Kane agrees the time is right for change.
O'Kane was part of a group that surveyed workers in May 2020 and found at the time working from home or a hybrid model didn't really "take".
But after lockdown after lockdown and with more time spent working from home than in the office the hybrid model has gained traction.
"We missed that opportunity to go hybrid after the first lockdown.
"Since then everything that's happened in Auckland in the lockdowns has given us more of a push. There are a lot more conversations going on and anecdotally we're hearing more about it."
O'Kane says that since the first lockdown of 2020 people have reprioritised the role of work in their lives.
Job-seekers are now looking for roles with flexibility.
"You find where organisations aren't offering employees what they want, they're going to move on and look for an organisation that will," she says.
People discovered work could fit in with family and they don't want to give it up, she says.
"I think some people re-found family in those lockdowns. I know I did and it was lovely."
Workers who are less stressed and able to balance family life - from being able to attend a school prizegiving to avoiding a time-consuming commute - work better, are motivated and are more productive, O'Kane says.
"When people feel valued they're more likely to go above and beyond, that sense of citizenship comes out."
Free scooters and other incentives
Globally, there is a push from some of the big players for workers to get back to the office.
Major tech companies, including Apple, Google and Twitter, are staggering the return of workers from this week.
For some, it is the first time in two years workers have had to leave home for work.
In a memo to staff, Apple chief executive Tim Cook acknowledged how unsettling it could be for some but said the return "represents a long-awaited milestone and a positive sign that we can engage more fully with the colleagues who play such an important role in our lives".
The return started with one day a week in the office building to three days a week by May.
As a sweetener to lure hesitant workers back, Google announced it would provide staff with a free e-scooter monthly subscription.
It would reimburse costs to employees, with the catch that they must work in the office at least nine days every month.
There are no free scooters on offer here yet but Telco giant 2degrees is transitioning to a hybrid model with free parking, wellness events, guest speakers and social activities to sweeten the return.
"We created an inspirational and flexible environment at Fanshawe St which connects our people to customers, to each other, and to our purpose," says Katie McNally, head of people.
"The new workplace supports and encourages innovation, collaboration, and co-creation."
The company started welcoming teams back to the office this week to brand new purpose-built offices.
The new six-star Greenstar-rated building opened in 2021 but hasn't been used because of lockdowns.
McNally says the office has started to "feel alive" in the past week.
"Eight months since officially opening our doors we are excited to be welcoming team members back into the office as Covid-19 restrictions ease.
"Our Auckland team are excited to be rediscovering the different task spaces, collaboration areas, and wellness areas in the new office as they reconnect with colleagues in real life."
Over at AA Insurance's head office near Victoria Park, Nikki Howell says people have been slowly returning to the office since the start of April.
There had been red light protocols to consider (New Zealand has this week moved to the orange light setting), social distancing and mask-wearing when away from desks as well as different teams and regular RATs to keep people safe.
Protocols will remain in place until May when they will be reviewed.
Howell says it is completely up to individuals if they return to work now or continue to work from home.
"Giving our people the choice to work from home or return on site will help with mental wellbeing, knowing they have that choice again and some control over how they work."
Howell says the business has surveyed teams to see how people want to work in the future.
"Early commentary is a mixture of those unconcerned about returning and relishing having the choice again, and those who are a little apprehensive, particularly if they or family members are at high risk to Covid-19."
Hybrid work has been possible since 2016 but Howell says Covid had accelerated its growth.
"We encouraged hybrid working based on the growing housing crises, and affordability, which we anticipated could influence staff migration away from the inner cities."
Most people returning to work in the coming months at AAI will work within the hybrid model unless they are face-to-face in the customer service centre.
Employees at Vodafone's head office in Takapuna headed back in split teams this week.
Blue teams are on site Monday and Wednesdays, and yellow teams on Tuesday and Thursdays, with teams alternating on Fridays.
"Prioritising health and wellbeing is at the forefront of our approach so all Vodafoners have been working remotely since mid-January," says spokeswoman Nicky Preston.
Recent surveys revealed a mix of feelings about returning to the office from those who couldn't wait to get back to others who had found home isolation tough.
"We've designed our return to office approach with flexibility and safety in mind so
going back into the office is optional, and we'll continue to review and adjust our plans based on staff feedback," Preston says.
She says even before Covid hit, flexibility was at the heart of the company's approach.
"Pre-pandemic many staff chose to work remotely a couple of days each week, and all our teams were already equipped with the right tools including laptops, mobile phones and video collaboration tech.
"However, Covid has definitely helped us become more productive and sophisticated when working remotely."
Safety is also key at Vodafone. For those in the office two or more days a week there would be RATs every three days.
If someone is only coming into the office once a week or intermittently, they need to return a negative RAT within 24 hours before returning.
This week, the discomfort of the RAT was softened with a visit from the Easter bunny.
"We had decorations and chocolate as a fun way to welcome everyone back," Preston says.
The Capital return
Down in Wellington, most businesses spoken to by the Weekend Herald have also adopted the hybrid model with Covid accelerating a flexible working trend that has been slowly happening for years.
"One thing we're seeing emerging is the rise of personal choice policies at offices," says Wellington Chamber of Commerce chief executive Simon Arcus.
"And that's probably the most significant change where offices have said 'you can make a personal choice about your comfort level about being in the office'."
He estimates businesses have been "experiencing the change" well before the pandemic, possibly for the last five years.
Arcus says a lot of his own team wants to come back to the office full-time. Some have found working from home full-time didn't suit them.
"What we actually have seen is that a lot of people had thought they dreamed of working from home and actually they hate it, because they like being with people, they like workplace culture. They might now want that hybrid style people talk about."
A number of public service departments and councils spoken to said they had offered flexible working before Covid hit, including the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Inland Revenue, Statistics New Zealand and the Wellington City Council.
A council spokesman says about 60 per cent of its staff who would usually log on to a computer in the office have been logging on from home in the past month.
"This is a trend that has been going on in the business world for some time. Covid-19 and our experience in New Zealand heightened the need for hybrid working, with an emphasis on working from home in order to meet Central Government requirements of lockdowns.
"We are also aware that many of our people are looking forward to returning to a higher level of office-based work and the collaboration and connection that provides.
"Council must continue to follow hybrid working strategies in order to attract and retain quality staff, which ultimately is key to our ability to deliver services for Wellington."
At tech company Datacom, about 90 per cent of its Wellington team has been working from home since January.
"We expect the return to the office to be slow and steady, particularly as people become more comfortable with public transport, and the office environment, " says managing director Justin Gray.
The company is in the process of researching what the future of work will look like for its staff.
"This will include assessing individual and team needs across all areas of our business and working with our senior leaders to establish a flexible working programme that meets the needs of our people, our business and our customers.
"Our expectation is that most people will land on a mix of home and office-based work."
Inland Revenue says that at the red traffic light setting it had a 2m social distancing rule and masks for staff when on the move.
"Using lessons learned from events such as the Kaikoura earthquake, IR had already set up the technology and policies to enable our people to work flexibly, from a mixture of home and office.
"IR will continue to offer flexible working options, including remote working, for staff who want to sometimes work from home."
The Ministry of Health said it had first adopted a "Flexible-first" policy in September 2020 after New Zealand's first lockdown.
Since January 2022 it has had 30–40 per cent working from home but has seen a gradual increase over the past several weeks.
Flexible working has been available for all Parliamentary Service and Office of the Clerk staff for several years, with a formal policy introduced in 2020.
"Under this policy, we work to ensure flexible working arrangements can be granted, and where this is not possible, every effort is made to agree on alternative arrangements that recognise the staff member's specific circumstances," they said.
All precinct-based staff had been advised to work from home where possible since Wellington moved to the red setting in January, which was emphasised during the occupation on Parliamentary grounds in February and March.
Statistics NZ also says it has "been a very flexible workplace for some time" with the early adoption of Microsoft Teams allowing collaboration from home since before the pandemic.
It is developing what our future model for flexible working will look like.
Advice for employers
Creating the right balance is essential for business leaders as they welcome workers back in the coming weeks, says employment specialist Shay Peters.
The managing director of recruitment company Robert Walters says that having part of the week in the office is essential for learning, development and company culture.
"Companies need to keep top of mind that for people to grow and develop in their roles, they need to learn from others - through osmosis and day-to-day interactions with colleagues."
If managers are only in the office two days a week, a junior employee's ability to learn is impacted.
As business leaders make post-Covid plans, Peters says they needed to remember hybrid working is not just about remote work – it includes office-based working too.
"Your workplace should be the physical embodiment of your employer value proposition and culture.
"It's the ideal place for onboarding, coaching, learning, collaborating, socialising, and for those serendipitous moments that spark new ideas."
Liza Viz CEO at Beyond Recruitment stresses it is important for businesses to manage the return to the office well in the coming months.
With borders opening and international paycheques and adventures calling, talent will be flying right out the door if the return to the office isn't thought through.
Employees have had a taste of working from home and most will want to split time between remote and office-based work.
Top tips from Liza Viz
Be flexible with flexibility
Smart businesses are working hard to learn what employees want most. Not everyone chases money, not everyone wants traditional benefits. Have a look at your staff demographics and get creative. Hybrid working that combines working from home, the office and other flexible arrangements is here to stay so make it work.
Reward hard work with perks
Consider bonus schemes, creative incentives, and team rewards. Internal shifts up and sideways and new career pathways are also very desirable. Paid training and time off for professional development are big for jobseekers. Phone plans and health and life insurance are increasingly on offer.
Find untapped pools of talent
There's a large pool of highly-skilled, experienced, and trained workers that are unvaccinated and have been stuck on the sidelines. Smart businesses are looking at ways to use these people in a safe way through remote work or job sharing.
Remember Kiwis work to live, not live to work.
Mental and physical health has long been a concern for workers. Companies that put a spotlight on helping people stay happy and healthy will win out in the long run. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are highly desired by employees.
The rebound effect
If Covid has left you short-staffed, think about past employees that left – they may want to return. There's a growing trend of people returning to their past employers because better pay and benefits don't equal a better employer.