Fashion label Carly Harris and popular cafe chain Wishbone have recently called in liquidators and both partly blamed people working from home for their demise. Georgina Campbell looks at Wellington’s new way of working.
Average office occupancy in some of Wellington’s most well-known government agencies is hovering just over 50 per cent.
This is after public servants adopted a “flexible by default” approach to working from home following the Covid-19 pandemic.
It means a shift from asking “why should a role be flexible?” to “why not?”.
Government agencies the Herald spoke to did not formally record headcounts prior to Covid-19, so pre-pandemic occupancy comparisons were unavailable.
Corporates are also embracing flexible working but an ANZ spokeswoman said they still believe the workplace is an important part of their culture, and there is an expectation that employees are in the office half the time.
“There are a number of factors influencing the success of encouraging staff back to the office and we recognise it will take time for our workforce to stabilise a flexible work rhythm. We continue to explore ways to best support the changing way our staff wish to work now and into the future.”
In Wellington this year, the spokeswoman said they were seeing more staff choosing to come into the office.
“Working from home” remains the second most commonly searched keyword on employment website Seek. The top keyword is “part-time”.
Greater Wellington Regional Council transport data shows train patronage is yet to fully rebound after Covid-19 and is sitting at about 85 per cent of what it was.
There were 0.97 million rail boardings in June this year compared to 1.14 million in June 2019.
The council’s Transport Committee chairman, councillor Thomas Nash, said this could suggest people living further away were working from home more.
Regional bus patronage has bounced back and is at 99 per cent of what it was. There were 2.08 million trips made in June this year, compared to 2.1 million trips in June 2019.
Nash said central cities are changing.
“More and more people want to live in the city centre, and people living outside it want better retail and hospitality where they live.
“Both these things can and should happen, but demanding people travel into the city every day whilst opposing housing and transport projects that let more people actually live there is totally counterproductive.”
Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency data shows annual daily traffic on State Highway 1 on Cobham Dr in eastern Wellington has fallen from 36,097 trips in 2019 to 27,751 last year.
Traffic on SH1 near Kaiwharawhara, which captures traffic flows in northern Wellington, has been more stable - only falling from 47,103 trips in 2019 to 43,526 in 2022.
Wellington Chamber of Commerce chief executive Simon Arcus said the city has a disproportionately high number of people in professional services, so working from home was always going to have an impact - and even more so because of how quickly workers’ habits changed.
As working from home has become normalised, there are some concerns, Arcus said.
For example, experienced older workers are not as available to teach and mentor younger staff, in turn pushing these junior employees to look for work elsewhere, he said.
“I think [working from home] is a story that hasn’t fully played out yet. I’m quite optimistic that there will be a bit of rebalancing.”
Many people in Wellington are quick to blame public servants working from home for the city’s retail and hospitality sector struggles.
The Public Service Commission is quick to say public servants only account for a fifth of the city’s CBD workforce.
The commission has issued hybrid working guidance to government agencies, which says demand for flexible working has been building for decades, and regardless of its scale, the impact of the Covid-19 response is part of a longer-term trend.
At the Public Service Commission itself, two-thirds of staff either work from home one day a week or two days, a spokesman said.
The Ministry of Health employs 718 people in Wellington. Swipe card data from its Molesworth St headquarters shows the average occupancy for one week in August was about 55 per cent.
A ministry spokesperson said this figure does not automatically determine a specific percentage of staff working remotely because, at any one time, there will be staff away on leave, sick leave, secondments or working in another office.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has significantly more employees based in Wellington, with a headcount of 3422.
Chief people officer Jennifer Nathan said MBIE did not regularly track how many people are in the office on any given day.
But Nathan noted before Covid-19, staff were allocated one desk per person.
“In 2022, MBIE became a flexible by default workplace, following guidance from Te Kawa Mataaho [Public Service Commission]. As part of flexible working agreements, staff may work from home, the office, remotely, or another MBIE location.”
Meanwhile, Waka Kotahi is in the process of moving into its new premises on Bowen St after it spent $28.5 million on the refit.
People and safety group general manager Chris Lokum said there will be about 200 fewer workstations available at the new office in the long term.
“The shift is designed to be compatible with our flexible working arrangements and to encourage workplace collaboration.”
There are about 1,250 workers based at Waka Kotahi’s Wellington offices, including contingent workers, and the average occupancy rate is 53 per cent, Lokum said.
“Based on current occupancy rates under our flexible work policy we are confident staff can be easily accommodated under the smaller workstation footprint.”
Seek New Zealand country manager Rob Clark expected working from home will remain a priority from a job seeker perspective.
“Covid-19 obviously tested a lot of hypotheses and working from home was certainly one of those and people came out and said: ‘I quite like that’.”
Clark said this was not unique to Wellington.
A national survey of what matters to job seekers or those looking to change jobs in the next 12 months found work-life balance is just as important to them as salary and compensation, Clark said
Of those who valued work-life balance, 41 per cent said working from home was a must-have, he said.
“It’s not going away. It’ll probably go in ebbs and flows in terms of the degree of but I think working from home is here to stay for the foreseeable future.”
Georgina Campbell is a Wellington-based reporter who has a particular interest in local government, transport, and seismic issues. She joined the Herald in 2019 after working as a broadcast journalist.