How not to fix a dying CBD: Do your duty public servants, return to your battery farm offices, sacrifice yourselves

Telephone operators, MO

All the dinosaurs have been out over the last few days trying to bully public servants and other staff back to working in less than humane conditions in CBD offices because the retail sector is suffering. Never mind the facts, the Finance Minister and some local Councillors have all had a crack, their toothless roars echoing through empty city concrete canyons.

The workers, finally, have seen what is on the other side of that particular hell called hot-desking thanks to Covid and are in absolutely no hurry to head back to their battery farm desks rubbing elbows with cellmates. A noisy purgatory stuffed full of bodies trying to weave their way around pillars desperately trying to find a quiet spot to concentrate and get work done.

It is no wonder that New Zealand’s productivity is so horrific and the attitude of our so-called leaders to drive the sheep back into their pens is disingenuous. It is up there with the banal politicking of sacrificing contract staff for point scoring and encouraging the entire country to “Love Local” when tenders for large pieces of technology and construction work are still be given to international companies.

Why the panic on the part of the politicians? It is a general election year, and the Wellington CBD is dead. Not only is it gone, the infrastructure is in a ruinous state, and the Council seems able to underwrite the greatest polluter in the city to the tune of more than twenty-five million dollars but can’t invest in simple cycleways. Things are not looking at all well managed.

Working from home is misrepresented by the power freaks, dinosaurs, and task managers. The politicians are often in the thrall of such progressive institutes as the Chamber of Commerce and Hospitality Industry, not to mention the property developers. All three can see their fortunes wavering.

And it is not like they did not see it coming. The advice was given, formally, and informally, during Lockdown on the ramifications for the CBD once the level was reduced. That advice was ignored time and again and months were lost that could have been used for strategic planning, thinking of a new way of seeing the city, being innovative, and listening to the community.

Here are the facts about working from home. We now know that large corporations are planning to downsize their rental footprint, in some cases by 100% if not at least 60%, in what was already a hyper-expensive market.

The results of a significant work from home experiment were published by the Oxford University Press and subsequently The Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2014 that examined exactly what the effects of having staff work from their homes was.

The results of that were astounding, and, given that our technology today is significantly more robust and advanced than five years ago, it could be postulated in today’s world we would see even more significant benefits.

Here is what the experiment found:

  • Performance of home workers increased by 13%.
  • Attrition fell by 50%.
  • Productivity increased between 20% and 30%.
  • The company reduced rental costs by $2000 per annum per employee.
  • Sick leave dropped.
  • Mental & Physical health increased.
  • Costs to employees dropped.

Who would have thought?

Who would have thought that having the flexibility to work when required, concentrate when needed, not be jammed into poor office space, pay exorbitant transport costs, contribute to the environment by not travelling as much, get back hours of your day from commuting, spend more time with your family, save money on expensive lunch options, have time to think and create wouldn’t pay dividends?

Who could have possibly guessed that following lockdown, which put people into a mandatory work from home situation, that many of us were never going back to the old normal?

Everyone except the dinosaurs and political “leaders” who have lost their ability to innovate, to strategise, to see past the 1984 command and control factory floor mentality of yesteryear.

Of course, not everyone wants to WFH. Social isolation is an issue; however, 60% of people are interested in working from home the majority of the time. Plan for a CBD with 50% fewer office workers and you are heading in the right direction.  

Go back to your office’s peasants, go back to your old life, go back to ninety minutes a day on a crowded bus, if it turns up, or train. Go back to $8 a sandwich, traffic jams, car crashes, poor weather, diesel pollution. Make sure you buy a t-shirt from a retailer once per week and spend every dollar you have to help the economy. Do your bit. Sacrifice yourself.

Can you see how utterly idiotic that sounds?

By the way, leaders, it is going to get worse. Because people have got a taste from working from home and kind, talented, innovative companies are letting them be flexible. Increasingly, there is evidence that many people are not only going to avoid the CBD; they are getting ready to leave the city.

Because living on the coast, living in the country, living in a small community is immensely attractive, and key indicators show a lot of people are getting ready to go. If you want a glaring sign, look at the latest house price increases between Wellington and her regional areas. Wellington is flatlining, Kapiti, the Hutt, Porirua, and the Wairarapa are booming. Interestingly, in those same regional areas, retail is booming.

Companies that provide for flexible working over those that do not will become increasingly attractive to workers. There is already anecdotal evidence that people are looking to move to those arrangements. Research has been unequivocal for the last ten years; flexibility is the highest priority when people are looking for work.

This means the CBD must adapt or it will die.

Right now, our leaders need to face facts and understand their current strategy of bullying people back into the city or relying on events, will not work. Then, they can start to think about what will.

4 thoughts on “How not to fix a dying CBD: Do your duty public servants, return to your battery farm offices, sacrifice yourselves

  1. Interesting points. But you act like public servants have no other choice to do these jobs and work in an office in the CBD. Find another job if that does not suit you. Don’t buy a house in Upper Hutt then complain about the commute.

    I also highly doubt productivity increased. Outputs may have increased but they were substandard given they were done by people isolated from their teams and leaders, and collaboration happened poorly over Zoom. More stuff happened but way more time was spent trying to fix it.


    1. Thanks for commenting Jade, always appreciated.

      You’re right, people would generally have a choice, but I suspect in this environment with mass redundancies people are scared to lose their jobs. So, when your Minister tells you to go to work then you will probably do so, reluctantly sometimes.

      I also wonder if people may be going into work, but may not be spending, because they are worried about the future. There doesn’t seem to be metrics that analyse that.

      As per the study I cited, it’s proven that productivity increases as well as other benefits. However…

      Some types of work are NOT suited for WFH, I agree. For example, software development teams spend their entire day talking to each other in an ad-hoc way, and I know of teams that really struggled as a result during lockdown, with quality issues as a result.

      But, for the majority, and particularly large processing centre type activity, it’s a proven productivity boost.


    2. Find another job? In this job market!? Competing against tens of thousands of newly unemployed people? Buy a house closer to the central city…in this housing market!? Have you picked up a newspaper at all in the last three years!!??
      People buy out of the central city because that’s all they can afford. People work in jobs for a livelihood and perhaps because they like their job?
      Its a shame you aren’t able to see past the now very outdated viewpoint of ‘presenteeism’, our KPIs were not affected at all by working remotely, but thanks for your blindly ignorant input Jade 🙂


  2. I lived in central wellington, Ngaio, Aro Valley, Northland for the best part of 25 years, most of that time my commute was 10 minutes or less.
    My office was taken away to “make me more productive”, then we downsized the footprint even more to save money. Then we started “hot desking” which means you don’t even get a cubicle with personal stuff to be a drone in. 9sqm per person became the new norm in our battery farms. My rubbish bin was taken away to show how green we were (or was it to cut the cleaning contract?). The pot plants went too, because they cost too much. But you could buy a $5 coffee in the nice coffee shop in the foyer!
    I now live on a lifestyle block. Quality of life immeasurably better.
    My home office has a heatpump, a 32 inch monitor, good coffee, quality hifi, a leather lazyboy, and a 10 second commute. I have a phone, zoom and teams, a headset and reasonable connectivity (fibre would be nice!). I step onto the deck, and there is fresh air, a dog that loves having me around, chickens and space!
    Hmmm, can’t wait to spend more time in the CBD. Long commutes, poor quality infrastructure, expensive parking, very expensive bad food, and thousands of drones all doing exactly the same, and then going down to the same pubs on friday night to “relax” or “party”.

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