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Opinion

Get back to the office, or get forgotten

The generation of 35-50 year olds is fast becoming the forgotten generation. They seem to have convinced themselves that their careers still have potential while working from home.

Michael Cook

Much has been written lately about the future of the office, the return to work and the death or otherwise of the CBD. Itโ€™s now time for a reality check.

Despite popular belief, the under-30 cohort are the keenest to get back to their desks. Theyโ€™ve worked it out. You donโ€™t learn a thing about your job or advance your career sitting in a one-bedroom flat. You canโ€™t get promoted if no-one knows who or where you are. And the CBD office is not only a great place to learn and advance your career, itโ€™s also close to all the best bars and restaurants.

The working from home trend has emptied offices.ย  Jason South

The generation of 35-50 year olds is fast becoming the forgotten generation. They seem to have convinced themselves that their careers still have potential while working from home (or dropping by Bunnings, or doing school drop-offs). They couldnโ€™t be more wrong. Yes, commuting is a hassle, but like death and taxes commuting is an inevitability to get to the best jobs.

And hereโ€™s where it gets interesting, bordering on disturbing.

Since the end of the lockdowns, an interesting phenomenon has become more apparent in our major CBDs. There are a number of buildings in every CBD that seem to attract a similar cohort of tenant. They appear to congregate in the top end or premium buildings. These tenants are more inclined to have workers whose jobs focus on private equity, investment banking, property, hedge funds, corporate advisory, high-end legal and finance. There is a term for these jobs, it is slightly disparaging. These are called, โ€œgreedy jobsโ€.

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They are called greedy jobs because they absorb a great deal of time, they require significant expertise (and education), they often require time away from home and exhaustive travel and because they are โ€œgreedy jobsโ€, work-life balance is almost non-existent. (Itโ€™s actually called work-life integration, but thatโ€™s another story.)

Oddly enough, the buildings that house these jobs are full. Occupancy levels have returned to pre-COVID-19 levels, and then some. There are other features of these jobs that are extremely relevant. They command very high salaries and although the glass ceiling has been well and truly shattered, the greediness of these professions on time and effort, means that most (not all) jobs are held by men.

At the other end of the spectrum, the more administrative, back office, more commoditised jobs are conducted in less expensive CBD locations which by and large according to the Property Council are struggling to get to the pre-COVID-19 occupancy levels. Many of these more commoditised jobs can be undertaken anywhere.

What this means is that there appears to be a widening pay gap between โ€œgreedyโ€ jobs and those office jobs which are being conducted from home. That is, this change to the balance of office related jobs is creating a new โ€œpay gapโ€.

If there is an emerging pay gap based on those working from home compared to those in the office and that the โ€œgreedyโ€ jobs are predominantly held by men, then it is only logical that all the genuine advances over the last few years in closing the gender pay gap are being eroded, at an alarming pace.

Iโ€™ve heard many people tell me that there is no difference between work conducted at home or in the office, itโ€™s productivity that counts. And this may very well be the case, but if two people are equally productive and one is seen in the office and the other isnโ€™t, who do you honestly believe is going to get the promotion or the pay-rise?

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The real problem that is besetting our cities is the total disengagement of our CBD office workforce. With disengagement comes career apathy. And with that, we are seeing a spiralling downwards of productivity. With so much of our GDP generated in our major cities, this is a worrying trend.

So what do we do to solve these โ€œproblemsโ€? Firstly, every ambitious young woman who is concerned with closing the gender pay gap for themselves, should be dropping everything and racing into their CBD office. You now know where the greedy jobs are, itโ€™s time to position yourselves accordingly and smash that glass ceiling โ€“ but you canโ€™t do it from home.

Employers (including the various state and federal governments) need to stop kidding themselves (and their staff) and realise that to survive in a very competitive post-COVID-19 world, they need maximum efficiency with all employees fully engaged and productive. Engagement and productivity canโ€™t be achieved 2-3 days per week.

It is a myth that to force people back into the office you will lose staff (the great resignation). That was last year. If your staff are still reluctant to return to the office, they are not on the same page, they are not engaged and they can and probably should be replaced. They were probably one-foot-out-the-door anyway and should start preparing themselves for the โ€˜Great Lay-Offโ€™.

Research from the US by Kastle demonstrated that attendance at sporting and other major events was back at pre-COVID-19 levels (90-plus per cent), yet office attendance was still lagging (40-50 per cent). Our own research here in Australia has highlighted that attendance at the MCG has returned to pre-COVID-19 levels (above 80 per cent) yet office attendance is still lagging (40 per cent). I think these statistics demonstrate a disappointing level of disingenuousness by many in our workforce.

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The reality check is well overdue. The COVID-19 holiday is over. Time to get back to work. Time to get back into the office.

Michael Cook is group executive for property at Investa.

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