February 24, 2022 | By Graeme Kemlo

The Chicken Littles of Melbourne may be predicting calamity for its CBD without real justification, but what’s perfectly clear is that COVID-19 and a work from home edict has significantly impacted the city.

Melbourne City Council has sensors to track pedestrians and the latest data reveals 70 percent fewer pedestrians in retail precincts and, specifically, a 68.5 percent drop, since 2019, in pedestrians around Collins Place. These twin towers at the Paris end of Collins Street are home to state government offices, Sofitel Melbourne on Collins, high-end retail and popular eateries.

Nearby Chinatown is also down 49 percent of its usual foot traffic. And at the height of the pandemic it was reported that Melbourne train passenger numbers were down 90 percent.

Premier Dan Andrews is to remove the work from home recommendation tomorrow, however city businesses, via Lord Mayor Sally Capp, say city traders are suffering.  They are calling for a voucher system to reward workers who spend at least three days a week in city offices.

“We need our workers, our shoppers, our culture vultures, and our night owls breathing life back into our streets,” said Capp.

“Our recovery lies in doing everything we can to activate this audience now.”

But will a voucher and a colourful quote change what has for some become a new normal – working from home? Long-suffering Melburnians endured one of the world’s longest lockdowns and the freedom to work from home is an advantage that eliminates the stress of the commute, the cost of petrol and reduces the risk of workplace infection. The Fair Work Ombudsman already has a best practice guide to WFH and it is becoming enshrined in some work agreements.

Infrastructure Victoria said in a November 2021 report: “The proportion of people working from home in Victoria increased from an historically stable 10 percent to 15 percent of workers prior to the pandemic to around 50 percent of workers in September 2020.”

The report also detailed the rise in Zoom: “In December 2019, video conferencing software Zoom had an average 10 million daily meeting participants. This rose to more than 300 million in April 2020, a 30-fold increase.”

Chief Executive of Infrastructure Victoria, Jonathan Spear, believes that working from home is both an opportunity and a challenge for governments. By 2036 inner Melbourne’s population is predicted to be 3.6 percent lower due to the effects of the pandemic while new growth areas in outer Melbourne would result in overall growth of 3.7 percent.

Fewer workers face-to-face in city offices also reinforces the Zoom meeting convenience and dedicated city meeting spaces are therefore less in demand.

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC) Chief Executive Peter King was not expecting a rush to convene, rather a slow and steady return as confidence grew. Of the business events that were listed to occur at MCEC this week, two have been postponed to later in the year.

With Australia’s international borders opening to the vaccinated this week following a 704-day lockout, Melbourne is in the midst of a hotel building boom with 6,000 new hotel rooms under construction or in final planning despite the pandemic.

So while the return of international arrivals, full city offices, 90+ percent hotel occupancies and major business events may be slower than some would like, Melbourne’s inbuilt resilience says, “No Chicken Little, the sky is not falling”.