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Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Working from home: How to get remote work right

Returning to the 2021 office is anything but normal

Surveillance apps, sanitiser, and space. This is the office environment of 2021.

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Image: Chris Duckett/ZDNet

January 2021 has seen the Sydney outpost of ZDNet Towers open for optional return to workers throughout the year, but after a week of being back in the chair, it's clear office work will not return to what the 2019 versions of us would have thought to be normal.

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In no way, shape, or form, does making an office open in 2021 make you a pioneer of the COVID-19 age. Plenty of office spaces in Sydney, and more so in other less coronavirus affected parts of Australia, have been operating since around the middle of 2020 -- and if you were a tradesperson, you might have never stopped, even during the height of the pandemic.

Nevertheless, with Australia being able to extinguish or effectively beat down COVID-19 when the virus has reappeared in the community, it does allow a peek of a future that will arrive in your part of the world at some stage.

It's still very quiet

At the time of writing, New South Wales has recorded five days of no community transmission after a spike in the northern reaches of the city just prior to Christmas. This led to a higher level of mask mandates than the state had put in place previously.

Each day, the state usually has up to a handful or so of positive cases from returned overseas travellers who enter hotel quarantine for two weeks, like everyone else who enters the country. Outbreaks do happen when the virus escapes the hotel quarantine system, but it is under control -- as much as it can be -- without completely pulling up the drawbridge that links Australia to the rest of the world.

After venue alerts included a couple of public transit routes, people are apprehensive about jumping on the train or bus. Let alone the potential for transmission once back in the office itself.

This leads to an observation about the much lower numbers of people in the city compared to the pre-COVID-19 era. This applies to businesses as well; many cafes and food outlets appear to be half-staffed. Streets that would previously be gridlocked are relatively pedestrian-friendly in 2021.

This situation extends to the office itself. Except for a rare few hours on Thursday afternoon, the number of people present did not require a second to count.

Elsewhere in the building, while the official number of people in a lift is restricted to four, I've yet to see more than two enter into an elevator; it seems to be an unspoken rule. There are no extended wait times for lifts, simply because not that many people are around at the moment.

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The office itself

The office environment of 2021 is a rules-based one. There are some doors you must enter through, and others you must use to exit.

A chequerboard of desks comprised of those that can be used and those that are barred is how the seating plan looks. Desks that can be used are required to be wiped down at the start and end of each day.

Meeting rooms have become merely an expression, with restrictions on the number of people slashed, and many only allowing a single person to use them each time.

One reason to come into the office is to catch up with people in person. But you will not be seated as a team necessarily nor will you work in the old ways. You'll probably still use tools like Slack in the office, simply due to not wanting to shout to someone more than a few desks down.

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Upon arrival, everyone is required to check in. The powers that be in ZDNet Towers selected an app that absolutely wants to have full-time GPS access, and complains furiously when it does not. Does it want to provide a floor map of where everyone in the office -- sometimes just me -- has been in case of infection? Maybe, but I never granted it that level of access and let it complain.

Everywhere in the office are the essentials of the COVID-19 world: Hand sanitiser, wipes, masks, and more hand sanitiser.

Prior to last year, it was rare that I would have opinions on sanitiser, but now I definitely do, and the office smell now falls into that familiar category.

For those fleeing insufficient cooling to survive the heights of an Australian summer, the air conditioning makes a pleasant change from my home surrounds. With NSW about to get struck by a heatwave expected to top 40 degrees celsius next week, this and the need to escape my electricity bill could become the primary reasons to head in.

The way forward

Based on the lack of people that have rushed back into the office, it's fair to say that if those in charge of return-to-the-office plans thought employees were longing to return to how things were, they were wrong.

Working from home is the new preferred normal for this small sample in Sydney. Whether in tiny inner-city apartments, in distant suburbia being hounded by the kids, and everywhere in between, the people simply failed to show up.

Office workers have clearly become accustomed to the new work methods; there is an exceedingly small transmission risk when on transit that plays on your mind, and there is something to be said for using prior commute time to sleep in or take mornings a bit more casually.

Unless you are forced to return to the office during 2021 with zero flexibility, the office is likely to be an adjunct to other factors. If you have an event, team meeting, doctor's appointment, dinner, or need to visit your barber in which case you need to go to the city, it makes no sense to come into the office.

Sometime soon, a bean-counter is going to work out how many squares metres and running costs are being used by a handful of people, and question the economic sense of it all. Then, the great shrinkage of commercial space will arrive in this office as well.

This is all because working from home has become the default, and when given the option, workers appear to be resistant to leaving it behind.

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