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Vertical homework

By Dr Janette Corcoran

Staying home has meant learning new work-ways – but what now might be expected of our apartment buildings? 

September saw the release of the Productivity Commission’s Working from homeresearch paper, which investigated how working from home (WFH) might impact Australia’s economy and individuals’ income, employment and wellbeing. 

Described as a “forced experiment” brought about by the pandemic, WFH is one of the biggest changes to our working life in the past 50 years.

According to Michael Brennan, chair of the Productivity Commission, “In less than two years we have gone from less than eight per cent of Australians working from home to 40 per cent. While this percentage may not always remain so high it is inevitable that more Australians will work from home.” 

And during our lockdown, we received much advice about WFH practices, ranging from how to set up our home offices, to employers grappling with OHS standards.

Of particular concern was the ever-changing issue of security – both of customer data (you did install that last update?) and employee privacy, with reports of “tattleware” being installed on home computers – that’s software that logs keystrokes, takes photos and assigns a “productivity score”.  

The Productivity Commission also considered the impact of WFH on central business districts (CBDs).

Its contention is that as more people WFH and avoid commuting into the CBD, significant economic activity (such as retail, hospitality and personal services) may drift from the CBDs to the suburbs.

This means that demand for office space may decline as firms downsize or relinquish their offices.

And if so, there will likely be an accompanying decline in office-worker demand for inner-city apartments. This is because being close to their work may no longer mean living close to the CBD. 

This is of concern to vertical villages as many of our residents have traditionally been office-workers seeking to be close to their work sites.

With work-proximity removed as a major appeal of our buildings, we will need to give serious thought to futureproofing our buildings against this drift away.    

This starts with knowing how our vertical villages are impacted by more residents WFH – and then identifying what is required to build our new appeal.  

Francesco Andreone (GoStrata Stak) has given this some thought, identifying several issues that vertical villages need to consider, including:

Increased facilities usage and “wear and tear”:  WFH means people stay in and around their building for longer, which means more frequent lift usage, increased use of common property (e.g. gyms) and greater demand upon central utilities (e.g. air conditioning).

Increased noise and sensitivity to noise:more people active in the building throughout the day and night means greater noise more frequently generated (accompanied by lower tolerance levels, as revealed during lockdowns when noise complaints soared).

Increased demand upon staff services:more people at home leads to greater demands upon staff, such as managing deliveries (food and parcel), coordinating maintenance repairs, and mediating conflict resolutions (e.g. noise complaints).   

In addition to this, vertical villages should consider how their existing amenities can be improved to better support WFH.

For instance, some apartment buildings already offer facilities such as business hubs or conference rooms, but often their acoustics (such as sound-proofing) are questionable.

Allied to this, vertical villages will need to review associated protocols to ensure their facilities do not become dedicated office resources for individual residents.

Other features in need of revamp may include parcel management and storage facilities, with staff now having to contend with growing volumes of work-related deliveries.

Together, and as noted by the Productivity Commission, these WFH changes bring increased complexityfor risk management, and a need for greater clarity about WFH responsibilities and their potential impact upon insurance. 

As WFH is primarily a CBD-centric shock, the City of Melbourne has already launched activities aimed at “saving our CBD”.

Yet it seems to me a key element of saving Melbourne’s CBD remains overlooked – namely, retaining residents already living here.

As WFH promotes a drift away from inner city living, steps must be taken now to make WFH in vertical villages more appealing. 

However, the burden of realising this CBD revival strategy should not rest entirely upon the volunteer committees and the personal pockets of residents.  

So, here’s an idea. 

What about business revival grants being open to vertical villages for improving their amenities to support residents WFH and remaining in the City of Melbourne?

In this way, our vertical villages can play an active role in “saving Melbourne’s CBD”, while also building our own vertical village resilience. •

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