Push to bring back office workers as city emerges from lockdown

By Brendan Rees

Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp has vowed the council will “run full pelt” at reinvigorating the city’s CBD as it emerges from lockdown, with its priority focusing on the return of office workers.

It comes as recent survey data from the Property Council shows Melbourne’s CBD’s office occupancy plunged to six per cent for the month of September – its lowest level yet since the survey began in July 2020.

The figure is down from the previous low of seven per cent which was recorded in August.

Occupancy rates in the CBD rose to 45 per cent in May before another COVID-19 outbreak all but obliterated the city’s chances of recovery.

Speaking at a Property Council seminar in October titled “Revitalising Melbourne’s CBD”, Cr Capp said city workers were critical to the city’s economy and the council would continue to advocate across the public and private sectors for their return.

“All levels of government and private sector have a role to play in encouraging workers back to the office,” she said.

“The reasons for coming into the office are really more prevalent than ever – creativity, innovation, connections and the confidence that city workers and major employers bring to our city can’t be understated.”

“We don’t just want to be ‘allowed’ to come back, we want government and major employees to encourage and lead city workplaces back just as they’ve been told to stay at home,” she said, adding Town Hall’s 1600-strong staff would be returning “as soon as restrictions allow”.

“We do acknowledge that the rhythm of our city has changed and the way that we work has changed.”

“Ultimately we want to bring back the buzz to Melbourne … we do want to run full pelt at it with you all so that we can settle into new rhythms as quickly as possible.” 

Cr Capp said the City of Melbourne would also be advocating for the removal of masks for office workers once the state hits the 80 per cent double dose vaccination target, projected to be November 5. However, people will still be encouraged to “work from home if you can”.  

City of Melbourne CEO Justin Hanney also addressed the seminar, saying the council would be “activating the hell out of the city” in a bid to attract office workers and visitors.

“We know if we bring back people three days per week versus four days per week versus five days per week, every single day is a full AFL grand final equivalent in the city in terms of crowd numbers which relates to foot traffic,” he said. 

“If it’s a great experience being back in the city they’re going to be back more consistently. We are really committed to making sure that experience is a first-class experience.”

To help achieve this, Mr Hanney said the council would ensure the city’s public transport options were “working really effectively” and would consider introducing staggered work times to encourage “a bit of flow of people in the city”.   

“[We’re] making sure that the city is really clean and presentable leading up to the Australian Open, making sure when workers come back into the city they remember what’s great about Melbourne.”

Danni Hunter, Victorian executive director of the Property Council, said “we need people back in the city as they are the lifeblood of Melbourne and support our businesses”.

“The CBD won’t bounce back of its own accord. It will require proactive action by the state government working in tandem with the City of Melbourne and business to revitalise the CBD over the coming 12 months as we switch our mindset from survival to revival.” •

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