A Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) survey of 66 Melbourne CBD businesses has found that just 1 out of every five workers has embraced pre-pandemic norms by returning to the office five days per week.

Only 1 in 4 respondents said workers are going to the office three or four days per week, while 42 per cent of workers are in the office just one or two days per week, citing common concerns such as the length of the commute and fear of contracting COVID-19.

The preference for home working has become so strong that 69 per cent of respondents to the VCCI survey said they do not expect employees to return to the office full-time.

The survey “provides the first detailed look at the reality of the return to office situation in Melbourne’s CBD,” VCCI chief executive Paul Guerra said, spinning the results as “largely a good news story” that shows “the return to office has been a gradual process.”

“What’s encouraging is that people are coming back to the office and embracing the social connection and enhanced collaboration and learning that in-person working offers,” he said. “The survey tells us that people want flexibility, and that’s what a lot of businesses are offering.”

Recalling workers to the office isn’t always delivering the benefits employers imagined, with just 48 per cent of respondents to the VCCI survey reporting an increase in productivity when employees worked from the office.

The reverse implication – that more than half of workers are more productive when working from home – is pause for thought for employers, who have generally had to normalise remote working or risk losing the employees they need to function.

This week, Victorian Premier Dan Andrews announced that the state will offer $3,000 bonuses to healthcare workers in an effort to convince them to spend more time at work: “this is about encouraging people to take up shifts if they can, to go from being part-time to maybe working some further hours,” he said.

Stay home and you're fired

That’s a far cry from the bully-pulpit tactics of leaders like Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who this month told employees that anybody who wasn’t at the office five days per week would be considered to have resigned.

Those claims – followed days later by warnings 10 per cent of workers could be laid off – have fuelled speculation that some bosses will target remote-working employees for downsizing.

Melbourne tech company Envato, for one, recently laid off 100 of its 700 staff across four countries – despite last year logging $228.5m in revenues and boosting profit by 76 per cent – and blamed factors such as rising inflation and Russia’s Ukraine invasion.

Also recently, Swedish buy now pay later (BNPL) fintech Klarna drew fire after CEO Sebastian Siemiatkowski posted a LinkedIn list of 560 “blindsided” staff – including six from Australia and one from New Zealand – who were no longer employed by the company.

Referring to the LinkedIn post as a “goldmine” for other potential employers, Siematkowski called it “a tangible symbol of a very hard decision that saddens me deeply”.

“Some recruiters should probably ignore LinkedIn or other sourcing channels for a few days and put all their energy into this list,” he said even as comments blasted him as “tone-deaf” and attacked his “careless attitude to company building where people’s trust has been abused.”

City office occupancy

Melbourne and Sydney’s towering CBD cityscapes once reflected those cities’ long commercial pre-eminence, but as the pandemic drags on, workers are still staying away from the office, forcing many employers to accept that they may never return.

The city where workers are most eager to gather around the water cooler again is, in fact, Adelaide, according to new Property Council of Australia figures that found office occupancy in that city jumped to 71 per cent of pre-pandemic normal in May.

Occupancy of Sydney office buildings, by contrast, jumped from 42 per cent in April to 55 per cent in May, while Melbourne occupancies increased from 36 per cent full to 48 per cent over the same period.

Even as Canberra’s government focus drove occupancy from 39 per cent in April to 60 per cent in May, there are signs that the return to work may be plateauing – with 63 per cent of respondents saying they don’t expect to see a “material increase in occupancy” over the next three months.

The figures reflect a “challenging environment” exacerbated by COVID and flu absences, Property Council chief executive Ken Morrison said, noting that “more individuals and workplaces are embracing the benefits of face-to-face connection.”

“CBDs are regaining much of their vibrancy,” he continued. “While flexible working is here to stay, there is a value in face-to-face connection that can’t be replicated over a screen.”

The May numbers do represent a significant jump over those just three months ago, when just 18 per cent of offices in Sydney, 15 per cent in Melbourne, and 21 per cent in Canberra were being utilised.

The headline numbers obscure subtler changes in work patterns that suggest the pandemic’s lasting change may be less about whether employees go back to the office, but how often.