A push from Canberra business groups to get workers back into the office has been met with a call from the ACT Government for people to continue working from home “if it works for them”.
While anecdotally many office workers enjoy saving commute time and the efficiency gained by work-from-home arrangements, others miss face-to-face human contact.
The increase in work-from-home arrangements has led to more people frequenting their local suburban shops or utilising online food delivery services, but owners of corporate eateries and other small businesses established close to business parks or surrounded by offices have taken a long-lasting financial hit, even in the wake of easing restrictions.
Based on there being no active coronavirus cases in the Territory (the last new confirmed case was recorded on 10 July), in early August the ACT Government decided to move to Stage 3, Step 3.1 of Canberra’s Recovery Plan from Monday 10 August.
A corporate eatery servicing a Symonston business park, Red Baron’s customer base is predominantly neighbouring office workers and workers across Canberra Avenue in Fyshwick.
Red Baron owner-operator Peter Vidovich said having people back at workplaces would be a big boost for their café.
“If everyone comes back, it’d be perfect. We’d be implementing other stuff as well like getting our liquor licence and then kicking off Christmas parties to really take advantage of the space,” he said.
“There’s no point us sinking more money and trying to get that infrastructure in if we’re not going to get a return on it.”
After dipping to under 10% of their normal trade back in March/April, they estimate about 30% of nearby workers are back in the office now, with many fluctuating between days worked at home and in the workplace.
According to a Property Council survey, just over 40% of offices are currently occupied.
Red Baron owner-operator Daniel Roberts said the current intermittent staffing of nearby offices puts them in a tough spot with their own rostering.
“All the buildings around us, if their rosters align to all have a big decrease on a specific day, we have no idea. Some weeks it’s a Wednesday, some weeks it’s a Monday.
“We’ll have X amount of staff and then no one comes in, then we’ll go low and get pumped … it’s hard to project,” he said.
Because Red Baron opened in December 2019, many of their casual staff were ineligible for the JobKeeper supplement given the requirement for 12 months’ employment.
“If we had JobKeeper we’d be able to have our full staff working all week,” Mr Vidovich said.
“If more people start coming back, then everyone will be able to come back on a full-time basis and work.”
Canberra Business Chamber CEO Graham Catt said getting back into the office is a simple yet powerful way to help local business across the ACT.
“The best way to support business is through genuine demand for goods and services. When public servants and others are in the office, their daily spending provides an important boost to local cafés, shops, restaurants, retail stores, transport providers and many other businesses,” he said.
When quizzed on the matter, ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith restated the current health advice, which advises “people to continue to work from home if that works for them and for their employer”.
“What we’ve seen in other places and including in Victoria, is that workplaces can be a significant source of new cases and new clusters, and that’s because people spend a long time in the workplace,” she said.
“The last thing our hospitality industry needs is new cases and new clusters that mean that we actually have to go backwards on our restrictions and actually further restrict their capacity to operate.”
Ms Stephen-Smith said she was sympathetic to the plight of the various small businesses reliant on office workers.
“For the workers in that sector and for the small business owners who rely on passing foot traffic, it is absolutely a very challenging time.
“I think this is a worthwhile discussion to be had … This is a balancing act of the cumulative risk of bringing people together, enabling our economy to continue to move forward, and not having to step backwards,” she said.