Are you over working from home? Does your formerly perfectly adequate apartment now seem tiny. Is your kitchen table too high and your laptop screen too small?
Are you one of those people who gets up and dresses as if they were going to the office – then just goes to the spare room?
Or do you take personal pride in how much of the day you can spend in your pyjamas?
Importantly, and are you missing those moments of splendid isolation on your bike, bus or train that transport you mentally into work mode as your body is moved from home to the workplace.
As this story from the Guardian shows, some frustrated commuters are prepared to fake it if they can’t actually make it.
As pressure quietly mounts to get more people back to the office, there are still plenty of us who don’t have that choice and may even miss the journey to and from work more than the experience of being in an office.
Enter, the Virtual Commute championed by Microsoft (who else?), it allows you to make that mental transition into your working day while your body stays exactly where it is.
We’re talking about that, and other coping strategies, on this week’s podcast.
Also, we’ll be looking at how the lure of free money may be helping some people overcome their concerns about the state of the apartment building industry.
And, on that topic, we revisit the “worst block in NSW” that prompted Building Commissioner David Chandler to be given his sweeping powers to shut down building sites and demand repairs for badly consturcted high-rises.
All, and more, in this week’s Flat Chat wrap.
Transcript in full
When was the last time you worked in an office?
Gosh, about 20 years ago, I think.
I occasionally have to, for special projects. I have to go and spend time in an office and I’m really, really bad at it.
Absolutely. I sometimes have to go into an office, and it takes me ages to work out what to wear. I’m just completely out of practice.
I’m thinking more in terms of people coming up to you and saying, ‘oh, how was your weekend?’ My instinctive response is, ‘what is it to you? I’m trying to work here,’ which is not the appropriate response. There are some people who, apparently, can’t wait to get back to the office, who have been working from home. We’ll be talking about that and we’ll be talking about the end of the Home Builder grant, which is ending in just a couple of weeks. I’m Jimmy Thomson, I write the Flat Chat column for the Australian Financial Review.
And I’m Sue Williams. I write about property for Domain.
And this is the Flat Chat Wrap.
There’s a big push on, to get people to go back to work in their offices. Mainly, I think, from the little cafes around office blocks in the city.
That’s very expensive real estate, those commercial offices. They’re designed to foster the cultural capital of companies and provide good workspaces for people. As you said in the intro, we’ve worked from home for a long time, so we’ve got a good desk, we’ve got good chairs; we’ve got space. We’ve got office cats. We’ve got everything, really, but a lot of people are working in their bedroom or their kitchen, on dining room tables, which are the wrong height, and they’re getting back injuries. It’s not really very good for them. While productivity soared at first, they’ve noticed that productivity is now flagging a little bit
I saw a politician saying that, and it made me wonder, has anybody done any test; any checks, or any measures on this? Or, is this just a grumpy old politician saying everybody should be back in the office? This is a politician in Canberra, saying that all the civil servants should be back in their offices, rather than sitting at home in their pajamas.
A lot of companies have done research on it and they found that productivity was really good at first. But they have a problem, because young people in the offices may need mentors, and they’re not getting those, when they’re working from home. They need to attract good staff all the time, and retain staff and people are kind of falling away and thinking ‘I might try a different career,’ because they are a bit bored, doing work from home. They don’t have that excitement in interactions with other people in the office to keep them going. There are real figures out there to say that people’s productivity is waning a little bit now.
Right, and I’m hearing and reading about the virtual commute. Have you heard about this?
Yeah, that sounds a really interesting idea.
One article (I think it was in The Guardian the other day), from London about a guy who used to cycle to work; now working from home. So, he just goes and has a ride on his bike every morning, when he would normally be commuting. Maybe he has a nice ride through the park. I wouldn’t necessarily want to have a fake commute through some traffic, especially here in Sydney. He said that prepares him for his working day. You know, the phone isn’t ringing. There are not people tapping him on the shoulder, asking him how his weekend was. It’s a chance to sort things out for the rest of the day and then when he gets back to his house, he switches on the computer and off he goes.
It’s kind of a good idea. I guess people will work from home in very different ways. Some people (like me), just sit in their pajamas most of the day, until they have to go out and then actually shower and get dressed. Whereas we know other people who shower, get completely dressed, put makeup on and sit there ready, as if they were going working in the office. Some people will only dress the top half of them, because they might just be in Zoom meetings, and don’t bother with the bottom half.
We know somebody whose company (it’s an American company), actually monitor their screen time.
That’s really creepy.
If they’re not at their screen, for enough of time during their working day, then they get emails. Where have you been? What are you doing?
That’s right. If you get up to put the washing on or something…
And then slump on the sofa to watch some TV…
I guess they’ve got different ways of monitoring people. Some people have to report in every hour. Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of weird. We always think that working from home is the ultimate freedom. But for some people, it’s not really.
I’ve been reading about Microsoft. They’ve created for their employees (and it’s a plan that’s open to anybody), their own virtual commute, where they encourage people to spend 10 minutes before they start working, just to sit and go through what their plans for the day are. Then, at the end of their working day, to sit down and make a note of the things that they plan to do the next day; the things that hang over from one day. It’s a phone call that never came through or the phone call that you never made, or the email that you either didn’t get or didn’t send. It’s just to say, ‘alright, this is to remind me in the morning, that I need to do this. Then the next morning, you look at your list and go, ‘alright, I’ve got to do that.’ They also introduced a package of online meditation programs. There is a company (I can’t remember the name offhand); an American company. They do structured meditations over the internet and so they’ve incorporated that into their virtual commute.
That’s a really good idea, isn’t it?
I mean, it sounds a bit oogerly- boogerly; a bit sort of touchy-feely…
Only to very old-fashioned people, Jimmy.
I wonder who you mean by that! I think we are all (wherever we work), we are all creatures of habit, you know. I think for people who aren’t going back to work anytime soon, and are struggling a bit… I mean, our neighbor, we bumped into them the other day. Her company doesn’t want her to go back to the office until September and she’s really finding it hard. Just the isolation, and she’s not on her own. She’s got a partner, but the work isolation thing…
I think a lot of those companies which have overseas headquarters, particularly in the States, where COVID is out of control, they’re issuing worldwide mandates to the workers not to come back in earlier. It’s a shame, because in Australia, we’re kind of ready to go back to work.
My thing would be, if you were in the habit of, let’s say, on your way to work, you picked up a cup of coffee at the station, and drank it on the train, I would say, get up, go to that coffee shop (they need your business), grab your coffee, and maybe just sit there and have your coffee, read the paper or whatever, or take your coffee back home and do something that isn’t directly work-related or listen to a podcast like this, for instance. You know, just do something that will take you out of the immediate work environment, but get your brain working. Then at an appointed time, an alarm goes off, and it’s time to start working.
Yeah, absolutely. Everybody has such different ways of working. Some people work all the way through, and other people need breaks. In the old days, it used to be cigarettes would give you a reason to have a break, but now, why not a quick three-minute meditation or a cup of coffee or play with the dog?
You could do a quick workout at the gym or something. I knew somebody who took up smoking because as a student, he worked in a meat works in New Zealand and they had their three smoko’s a day. When he came out for the break with the rest of them, they said, ‘oh, if you don’t smoke, you don’t get a smoko.’ Seriously, they wouldn’t let him. They said ‘you’ve got to keep working. If you’re not smoking, you got to keep working.’ So, he took up smoking.
I remember other people, when their bosses smoked, they’d go outside the building to smoke. They’ve found it quite good for their careers to take up smoking as well. They could go outside, and they could have a quick word with the boss, while they’re all standing around.
I remember an episode of Friends… Rachel took up smoking because she was missing out; everybody else was going out, and smoking and they were coming back, having made decisions that she had no part of.
I guess when you look at the CBDs of all our major cities, they are pretty empty at the moment. Governments are quite rightly concerned about whether people are actually ever going to go back to the CBDs and there are some people long-term who say our CBDs will change in nature. Some of those big office towers will change. They’ll become lots of different things. They could become retirement homes; they can be converted to residential, to bring more life into the CBDs post-pandemic, and CBDs are going to become more entertainment hubs. You go to the CBD for a drink or for dinner or for a dance or something and for a show and movie, rather than actually going there for work, because you still want the CBDs to be vibrant and lively, and you still want lots of people around.
During the day, though, is when you miss the people. I mean, a lot of the city centers already have that, (or they had), the entertainment aspect and the restaurants etc. There’s the whole public transport thing; the government was worried about overcrowding on public transport and now they’re worried about under crowding but they don’t want too many people on public transport, or we’ll all have to wear masks.
They do have the apps now, where you can see how many people are going to be on a particular bus, which is very, very clever, but the traffic in Sydney where we live, is becoming really bad, because lots of people aren’t taking public transport, but they’re still going to the city or they’re still traveling to work in the inner suburbs. Traffic seems to be even worse, because we don’t have people going by bus or train anymore.
It’s all kind of organic, isn’t it? It all sorts itself out in the end. It will all settle once COVID is pretty much over, but I think a lot of people have made a big commitment to working from home, by changing where their home is. They’re not living near the city anymore. They’re moving out to the beaches or even into the country and that’s going to be hard, to get them back.
A friend works for a company and one of her employees moved to South Australia, and then the company said, ‘we want everybody back in the office’, so that was a real problem.
It would have been! When we come back, we’re going to talk about the end of the Home Builder grant.
When is the Home Builder grant set to finish, Jimmy?
In a couple of weeks; March 31. It was originally supposed to end in December. I don’t know if there was too little uptake, or it proved to be too popular or made the difference to the building industry that they wanted. Anyway, the federal government decided to extend it to March 31. This is a grant for new buildings, and you have to live in them; new apartments or new houses. I think it’s $15,000 off the cost. Now, that doesn’t seem all that much, except if you’re a first-time homebuyer in New South Wales, with the First Home Buyers grant here, plus the Home Builder grant plus the stamp duty… $54,000.
Oh, that’s quite a lot, isn’t it?
It’s got to be a home costing less than $750,000. I think they’re saying (they being PR companies for developers), there’s gonna be a rush on people finalizing their off-the-plan purchases in the next couple of weeks and I can see that happening.
That is good news for developers as well, particularly in the apartment market, because prices have been quite soft there. A lot of people are talking about a little bit of an oversupply of apartments in some areas. That’s Melbourne in the Docklands and Sydney in Green Square; around there. So that will help boost those, one would think.
Yeah, and also, rents have been going down. Although, I was reading somewhere that there was 90% clearance of apartments in auctions over the weekend, which is going against the trend that apartments have been flatlining, basically, while house sales have been going up.
Yeah, but it’s often off-the-plan apartments, where sales have been a bit softer. Auctions are obviously apartments that have already been built and are being resold.
So, they don’t apply for the Home Builder grant.
It’s kind of weird. I mean, the apartment market is very seriously affected by the lack of international travel. We don’t have the foreign students coming in. We don’t have foreign business people going in and dare I say; we don’t have people coming in on Airbnb holidays. That’s really going to push the demand for apartments well down.
I think that affects the major cities like Sydney and Melbourne much more than other markets. You know, Perth, the apartment market is doing okay. Adelaide is a much, much smaller market but that’s doing alright, but Brisbane and the Gold Coast are really booming, because they’re considered real lifestyle destinations as well, and lots of Sydney-siders and Melburnians are going there to live. So those markets; apartment markets, are doing incredibly well.
What do you think of these half-price airfares that have been announced to boost tourism? A lot of people especially hoteliers in the cities are really annoyed about that, because they’re saying, ‘well, great. You’ve just taken away any potential custom that we might have had for people coming into the cities. You’ve taken that away from us.’ Do you think that’s valid?
I think it is, because those CBD hotels are really, really hurting. Some of them during COVID had something like 2% occupancy, and now they’re still operating under 10% and there’s a lot of workers involved in hotels and a huge amount of investment. I mean, some of the hotels have taken this period of COVID to undergo big renovation; they might have had works planned for a few years’ time, but they’ve decided to do it now, which was probably a good thing. Most of them have introduced really good rates. If you want to go on a staycation or if you want to, (you’re a Sydneysider), go over to Melbourne, you can stay in a really nice five-star hotel for a three or four-star price now. Their offers have free sparkling wine on arrival, late check out, check in, and a free breakfast, or the credit towards a dinner. It’s actually a really good time to go to those hotels now, because they’re really trying hard to attract new people.
Would you recommend it for somebody (and we’re not even talking about making the trip from Melbourne to Sydney or vice versa), but actually just saying, ‘I live in an outer suburb of one of these cities, and I’m going to go and stay for a couple of nights in the city center.’
I really would, because we just recently stayed at the Hilton Sydney and they’ve just had a big refurb. It’s a beautiful hotel, and it’s got a fantastic restaurant and a really great bar, The Marble Bar. I really enjoyed staying there and it gives you a different take on your own city, because you have a completely different view of the city. Everything is within walking distance. If you go on a midweek stay, it’s even cheaper than weekends.
If you are working in the CBD, you can actually walk to work and have a drink on the way home and then go somewhere nice for dinner and you don’t ever have to worry about drink driving or anything like that. You can go and see your show and you don’t have to struggle to get home afterwards on public transport or in a taxi. I think it’s a really good idea. Some of these hotels; I wouldn’t be able to afford to stay in them normally, but now I could afford to stay in them. It’s quite funny, because the staff are so welcoming. I’m not saying the staff weren’t welcoming before, but now they’re so pleased to see guests. You get a great service in most of the places. It’s just a really great time to sample your own city, I think.
Yeah, I noticed that with the Hilton. I don’t know if they used to do that (because it’s been a while since I stayed in the Hilton), but there was a guy hovering around the area in front of the check-in desk, and he was just saying, ‘are you checking in; are you checking out?’ It was like, everything was there to make it easier for you just to breeze in…
And give you a really personal service. That’s the difference with a five-star hotel. I think it’s a really good opportunity to go.
We ate in the restaurant. What’s it called? Glass, is it?
Glass, yes. It’s the Luke Mangan restaurant.
He came to the table; he came and said hello and asked us how the food was.
Yeah, it was very good, luckily.
It would be awful to say, ‘actually, this is a bit undercooked.’
But it was a bit weird, wasn’t it, because he actually used to live in the same apartment building as us. I said to him ‘oh, you know, we remember you from our building,’ and he had no memory of us at all, which was a bit embarrassing, but never mind.
Only for you. Okay, it’s kind of a quiet week in strata land.
Well, the Building Commissioner is still going around and closing down buildings, which is kind of interesting to see and he was talking about an apartment building in Auburn, which is the worst he’s ever seen, so he’s issued orders there. He’s still going great guns around Sydney, and just outside Sydney as well.
I wonder if he has protection. I mean, some of these developers actually have guns. Not the nice ones; not the good ones; not the ones we know. Okay, thank you so much for that. And we will talk again next week.
Okay, thanks Jimmy.
Thanks for listening to the Flat Chat Wrap podcast. You’ll find links to the stories and other references on our website, www.flat-chat.com.au And if you haven’t already done so, you can subscribe to this podcast completely free on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favorite pod catcher. Just search for Flat Chat Wrap with a W, click on subscribe and you’ll get this podcast every week without even trying. Thanks again. Talk to you again next week.