long-term suport
(Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

Sydney’s empty tower blocks are ready. After two months of forced hibernation, the CBD is cautiously yawning and stretching its limbs.

But when millions of office workers take their cautious, groggy steps from lockdown, back toward some semblance of the old life, they’ll come back to a workplace changed for good.

While Sydney’s white-collar types were isolating at home, an army of essential workers were refitting our offices for the future.

Hand sanitiser dispensers greet you at every doorway in the city. Plastic sheeting at the concierge’s desk. Stickers on tables and the floor telling people how far to keep apart. A world without the horrors of hot-desking and panoptic open plan offices suddenly seems possible. 

The pandemic has made the most mundane, everyday acts cumbersome, inconvenient or otherwise laced with danger. Human interaction is now cause for suspicion. The daily commute is suddenly a minefield of potential vectors. The idea of cramming 15 people in a lift now sounds terrifying. 

It’s that simple act of taking a lift which might prove one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the return to work.

Safe Work Australia has been hurriedly trying to grapple with this problem in time for the restart. Its initial guidelines, which urged a 1.5-metre distance in lifts, was slammed by landlords, who claimed it could force workers to wait up to three hours just to get to their desks. 

After a chat with the Property Council, Attorney-General Christian Porter intervened to soften the rules around lifts — instead of the 1.5 metre rule, the agency is now urging people to not touch each other and keep a distance.

Curious about how this tension between convenience and health would play out, I head in on a weekday morning seeing how long I can loiter by the lifts in building lobbies until someone calls security.

Things are still quiet, and if not for the occasional clusters of navy-suited finance bros, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a Sunday. 

Most buildings have rules restricting lifts to just four at a time, and pretty much everyone seemed to be following this. There are no signs of three-hour bottlenecks yet, because by and large, Sydney’s office towers are still empty.

Ziad, who works the door at a Charter Hall building off Martin Place in Sydney’s throbbing, corporate heart, said they’d braced themselves for a wave of people on Monday, but things stayed quiet

“People are still very concerned, and most are still staying at home. So we’re just going slow and steady now,” he says.

Alyssa, a concierge at the Aon building on Kent St, has a notepad out and is making a tally of every person that comes through the door — no more than 50 are allowed in. She tells me it’s been surprising how well-behaved and patient everyone’s been — people seem nicer than before the pandemic.

“I guess nobody wants to die early, right?”

The few office workers that have ventured in seem remarkably casual about things.

A Commonwealth Bank employee, who came back to work a week ago says the measures have been working well. No queue for the lifts, distancing in the office, regular communication from management.

Over in Barangaroo, Jess, whose company has been working on and off throughout the last two months, says she hasn’t been worried at all.

“I guess I’m just not that kind of person,” she says with a shrug, puffing on a cigarette. 

But just how long can this sense of calm and nonchalance really last? In March, 94 workers on one floor of an office building in Seoul tested positive for COVID-19, a sign of just how quickly the virus can spread in a tight space.

A workplace strategist compared offices in their current form to “land-based cruise ships”. The arrival of our first office cluster is probably a question of if, not when. 

And as tower blocks fill up, how long will it be before patience wears thin, tempers fray, and a workforce that’s spent months isolated from the slightest sign of danger lets its guard down?

Ziad says that while he can do everything to enforce rules in the lobby and the lifts, once workers are in their offices, it’s all out of his control.

In the city, I’m reminded yet again about how absurdly lucky many of us have been during this pandemic.

We haven’t experienced anything like the terror that’s ripped through so much of the rest of the world. And while so many Australians have lost jobs and seen futures gutted, the ones returning to offices are the luckiest of all — able to isolate safely at home until things calmed down, with a job to come back to.

The dilemma about repopulating the tower blocks feels like an overwhelmingly middle class, white collar one.

When the bankers and lawyers left the city, the construction workers, cleaners, supermarket shelf-stackers and delivery riders kept going, putting themselves at risk every day. Waiting a little longer at the lifts or giving up the odd coffee break, seems, in the scheme of the whole pandemic, a relatively trivial little problem.