Recently, on the days when I come into the CBD, I am acutely aware of how I am dragging my feet. Coming to town means a noisier environment (in and out of the office) with lower air quality, it costs an arm and a leg, it takes time, and you run the risk of catching a nasty virus. So why bother?
It seems that many people have found working from home is much more efficient. It makes sense. As a result, with Omicron looming and rosters being established, coming into the Wellington CBD makes for a very unusual experience: it is significantly emptier. I think this is a really good sign and a step in the right direction. So let’s have a look at why, when possible, Working From Home (WFH) should be strongly promoted and embraced for good.
From a worker perspective
What’s not to gain from WFH as an employee? Time, first, for all the commuting that is not needed anymore. This time can be reallocated to greater efficiency or flexibility, to work, the family or hobbies.
From a cost of living point of view, this makes extra sense: whether using public transport or private vehicles, the cost of coming into CBD can be very steep. Also, because such a model can translate into massive savings for City and Regional Councils (more on that later), a big uptake in remote working would also translate into lower rates pressure.
The other benefits of working from home has direct impact on people’s wellbeing: with greater flexibility, people can work at the most efficient time for them, working around other constraints with much greater agility, thus reducing stress and the necessity of juggling with multiple calendars (home, work, kids, etc). In theory, it can also be assumed home is generally a quieter environment than an office, having a direct impact on stress levels. Finally, with a greater ability to focus, workers can deliver more efficiently, which translates to greater self-satisfaction, and greater wellbeing.
From an employer perspective
Obviously, this efficiency is a direct gain for an employer. By giving employees the flexibility they need, and the possibility to truly focus on work without the distractions inherent to corporate open spaces, organisations can expect a sharp increase in productivity.
But more importantly, the savings in office rental would be – simply put and scientifically measured – huge. With a versatile, ubiquitous task force, office floors could be significantly reduced to cater for the times when meeting in person remains unavoidable, or to work on the team dynamic.
From a city planning perspective
But this is really from a city planning point of view that more WFH presents too many opportunities not to be seized. Fewer commuters mean less pressure on the transport network. This translates directly to fewer emissions and indirectly too as fewer roads/rails are required: the environmental cost of building things is on par with aviation, so not having to build roads or dig tunnels represents an emissions reduction. While contributing to climate change mitigation, it also reduces noise and improves air quality … leading to improved liveability across town.
With fewer or no new roads or light trains to build, Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM)’s $7B could be reallocated. We would find ourselves thankful for all these years of consultation with nothing significant being built: LGWM would have saved money we didn’t need to spend.
In the suburbs, people working locally has the potential to truly strengthen communities, boost local businesses and create new opportunities for arts and culture.
By fully embracing remote working and office-to-home conversion, Wellington would tackle the transport, housing and climate crisis all at once while becoming more livable and strengthening its communities.
In the CBD, freed office spaces would be transformed into homes, solving the housing crisis in no time. It is deeply disheartening that we are fiercely trying to home people and address affordability when all these available spaces, right in the city centre, are empty every, single, night. With that in mind, WFH can be seen as a civic act of kindness towards families unable to find a rental or a home to purchase. Market forces would naturally promote the office-to-home conversion, as running a business in the CBD would end up being less competitive.
This strategy also has the merit of ticking all the boxes wanted by the Spatial Plan, and more: more homes, close to the CBD, along the transport spine, creating a lively, community-focused city centre, and above all, avoiding the environmental cost of building hundreds of new homes. The public budget initially allocated to accommodate new buildings could be channelled to beautify the city and all the savings realised could go to reducing the rates. With such a strategy, one wouldn’t come to the CBD because they must, but they’d visit the city centre because they want.
The only construction still needed would be the city-wide bike network to bring Wellington on-par with worldwide capitals’ efforts to promote this sustainable mode of transport.
From a local business point of view
This may seem like a scary or undesirable future for central hospitality and retail businesses. But this shift would actually represent an immense opportunity. With more people staying in the suburbs, one option could be to relocate there, where customers live and work. Or better, with people moving in the central city to live, customer traffic would increase over longer hours, not only during business hours. Businesses located in a CBD relieved from commuters should embrace and support office conversions to homes wholeheartedly.
This is a massive business opportunity while enabling retailers to significantly contribute to a vibrant, community-focused city centre. Add to that mix the exceptional cultural scene already pulsing in Wellington’s heart, the city centre could become the most liveable one on the planet.
In the suburbs, existing businesses would see a WFH uptake as a god send, as their customer base would mechanically expand.
From a developer/construction industry point of view
Developers have perhaps most to lose in a model where the WFH needle is pushed up, but not necessarily. With outer roads under greater pressure, more maintenance may be required there. Likewise, with residents spending more time in their homes to work, one could expect maintenance and improvements would be needed. And if none of that happens, then I won’t feel too sorry for all the promised concrete monoliths not coming off the ground.
All these considerations are immensely relevant in the Wellington context. Faced with a transport, housing and climate crisis, promoting working remotely to allow a deep re-engineering of the city fabric should be on everyone’s agenda. Sadly, instead of applying the Reuse Reduce Recycle mantra to city planning, the City Council and Central Government seem obsessed with building more, anywhere, which will only bear fruit in many years, with all the adverse effects we know.
From a resident’s point of view, the desired strategy and vision for Wellington seem to have consensus, as outlined, for example, in the Dom Post series “Reimagining Wellington”. Reading through those aspirations, it seems a cost and environmentally efficient way of delivering a liveable, affordable and sustainable city is within reach. It consists in taking newly acquired working from home practice to a whole new level, liberating budgets, freeing offices to create homes, reducing and preventing emissions.
If COVID has had anything positive about it, it is that it has shifted mindsets about working remotely. Even in very work conservative countries, such as France, it is here to stay, with all the benefits that come with it. In the US, Canada, across Europe, working from home is now baked into law or strongly encouraged by market forces. Resistance, in this case, is futile, and New Zealand, especially in cities like Wellington, should not try to resist, for all the benefits this will bring to people, communities, and businesses.
The next local elections will be the first of the post-COVID era. Who will be the leader able to carry this vision?