Wed, 13 Jan 2021 - 12:04
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We can work from home, but this won't be the end of the city office

Will the latest COVID case numbers delay the return of thousands of office workers to CBD offices next week?

That’s a question getting media coverage at the moment.

But it is also a pointer to a significant longer-term question.

Over the past year the pandemic has brought major changes to our work habits, our work spaces and our cities.

After the pandemic has passed, will there be a long-term legacy, of more people working remotely, some or all of the time?

And if that happens, what will it mean for our cities?

Nearly 25 years ago the British journalist Frances Cairncross predicted that the rise of the internet and broadband would bring about “The Death of Distance”.

She argued that the decline of physical location as a key determinant of economic activity would mean a “rebirth” of cities: “As individuals spend less time in the office and more time working from home or travelling, cities will transform from concentrations of office employment to centres of entertainment and culture.”

It was a provocative theory – but at the time she was writing broadband was not good enough or ubiquitous enough to allow large numbers of people to work remotely. The technology had not caught up with the theory.

It was also a theory that ran up against the arguments of other thinkers about cities, such as the urban theorist Richard Florida. In his view the growth of the knowledge economy meant that the “creative class” were becoming ever more important to prosperity. The software developers, advertising copywriters, architects and product managers and other creatives needed to come together, to interact, to share knowledge and spark ideas.

On this view, the intensity of human engagement in cities is critical in a knowledge economy, and we will see more people concentrating together in urban workspaces rather than fewer.

The pandemic has been a giant natural experiment to test some of these ideas. COVID-19 made the office suddenly off-limits, and the world of work – along with the worlds of social interaction and education – transformed nearly overnight to operate almost entirely online.

If the pandemic had come along even 10 years earlier, that sudden transformation could likely never have successfully been achieved. But as we have all discovered, Zoom, Skype, Teams, Webex, BlueJeans and many other videoconferencing apps have made it practical to work and study from home.

What we also learned was that if you were working from home, having a good broadband connection really, really mattered.

The Coalition’s 2013 decision to fundamentally reshape the national broadband network rollout strategy paid big dividends in 2020. It meant that 98 per cent of all premises in Australia were able to connect to the NBN when COVID hit.

The NBN faced sudden and unexpected demands in 2020 – but held up very well. The amount of data being downloaded during the day, with so many people working from home, was up about 70 per cent on pre-COVID-19 levels. Very importantly, videoconferencing is a two-way technology, so you need good upload speeds as well as good download speeds. Total data uploads on the NBN rose nearly 110 per cent once COVID hit.

A clear lesson from the pandemic, then, is that we have the technology to allow millions of people to work from home. The premise of Cairncross’s book is now real. But what we do not yet know is how we will behave once the pandemic is behind us and there is no longer a need to work from home.

As Communications Minister I oversee policies designed to provide widely available, high-speed broadband services, in turn allowing economic and social activity to flourish over broadband.

With newly added responsibilities for Urban Infrastructure and Cities, I also need to consider what changing work patterns, stimulated by broadband and other technology, mean for our cities.

It is possible, as some have argued, that we will see permanent and profound changes to the way people work – with fewer people working from CBD offices, and more people working in the suburbs or in regional areas. If so, that will have significant implications for the way that we design cities and the transport arteries that allow people to move around them and between them.

But perhaps the first thing to do is see how behaviours adapt once the pandemic is behind us.

Despite having spent the past 25 years working in and around telecommunications, my sense is that people retain an instinctive feeling that direct human interaction is richer and more satisfying than staring at other people on screens. In other words: the urban theorists had a point.

Undoubtedly, most of us have learned that we can do much more on screens than we’d previously realised. We have the tools at our fingertips to pull together a videoconference with 10 people if we need to, and that we can do it quickly.

Will we keep using that knowledge when all restrictions are lifted? Of course.

But to leap to the conclusion that the office is dead and cities as we know it will be fundamentally reshaped? I’m not so sure.

This article appeared online in the The Age on 13 January 2021.