Infrastructure Opinion

Returning to the office post-COVID: It's not set in concrete

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COVID-19 has changed work architecture, resulting in more people working from home (Image by I. Samkov | Pexels)

The popular view is that once we've got on top of COVID-19 through vaccines, occupancy of offices will return to normal. But new habits die hard, writes Dr Peter Fisher.

SOUTH AUSTRALIAN Premier Steven Marshall in a recent COVID-19 media conference, thanked his constituents for their 'united effort as we flex up capacity throughout the system against this nasty virus'.

It seems unlikely that the Premier was invoking New England hip-hop in his “flexing” but rather was taking an opportunity to make good of new circumstances and/or new knowledge.

Living with exact science

Scientific variance can be disconcerting at times — when we are faced with different interpretations by “experts” (code: scientists) and especially when dealing with issues affecting livelihoods. These are usually resolved in peer review forums before advancing from propositions to “truths" or otherwise, as data/results are accumulated.

Nowadays, what was once played out by white coats behind lab doors is more open with nuances picked up by mainstream media looking for copy. Perplexing as it may seem, dissent is endemic to the development of robust, healthy science but until now the public has not had a window into that process. Moreover, it has rarely if at all had a front-stalls seat into the goings-on at the knowledge frontier marked by sites such as sbioRxiv (which features papers before they have been published in a scientific journal).   

If coronavirus has influenced the way new knowledge is disseminated it most certainly has had a direct bearing on cities experiencing lockdown, empty of knowledge workers weaned off long crowded commutes and risky settings. On show has been a contrasting pace of the innovation cycle in "built space" vis-a-vis "virtual space". If nothing else, innovation is about problem-solving and the technology sector has not been slow in fine-tuning things like Teams and Zoom.

Alas, there’s no Teams counterpart in the built-environment tool chest, just steel, concrete and glass, often with the prospect of long lead times to plan and implement responsive changes — as is equally the case for the transport sector’s big builds that we’re now seeing.

New habits die hard

The popular view is that once we’ve got on top of COVID-19 through vaccines, occupancy of offices and their feeder heavy-rail systems will return to “normal” — and with it life in the vertical sprawl. However new habits die hard and there’s mounting evidence that behavioural changes are afoot. Not the least with corporate high flyers in the U.S. where, for example, Apple employees have been resisting requirements to return to their classy 24/7 campus in Silicon Valley. But, Amazon has sensed the drift and is advising workers at its Seattle headquarters that they can stay mostly remote.

These developments have also changed work architecture in unforeseen ways, with "big tech" staff questioning the popular management philosophy at many Silicon Valley companies that serendipitous, in-person collaboration is necessary to fuel innovation. While Zoom (which has truly come of age during this pandemic) has blurred the distinction between working-from-home and working-from-office, with employees essentially doing the same thing in either location — Zooming all day.

Are office towers like coal?

In any event, can “the office” maintain position as a robust option given the likelihood of a climate conducive to the spread of zoonoses — also known as vector-borne pathogens?  

These and similar imponderables need to shape long term responses that have a capacity to change course – given new information –  without turning things upside down (there’ll be enough of that courtesy of nature, anyway).

According to the Australian Academy of Science:

'At 3°C of global warming, many of Australia’s ecological systems would be unrecognisable. The decline of Australia’s natural resources would accelerate through changing distributions or loss of thousands of species and disrupted ecological processes such as habitat maintenance.'

A new beginning

The past 12-18 months have been reminiscent of a masterclass in the growth of scientific knowledge and its intersection with human behaviour. Truths emerged: some more nuanced, for example, aerosol versus surfaces viral spread, while others consolidated scientific information.

The lessons stemming from that uncertainty were not only the value in adopting the precautionary principle but also preparedness to maintain a level of flexibility in responses.

Meanwhile, the market has intervened in the shape of fast tech to redefine work where even in highly-vaccinated San Francisco, the shift to residential neighbourhoods has held – with an occasional hybrid – underscoring behavioural change.

Sit back and enjoy the lifestyle rebellion while you can.

Dr Peter Fisher is an Honorary & Vice-Chancellor Fellows Group member, University of Melbourne.

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