What does the future hold for urban lifestyles?

The big question

Video: ymgerman/Adobe Stock

Video: ymgerman/Adobe Stock

Physical distancing and other measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic have meant that, on occasion, the Brisbane central business district (CBD) has almost resembled a ghost town.

Sydney has been worse affected. Melbourne far, far worse. Overseas was worse again. Activity in CBDs shrank all around the world as the home became the workplace.

There were ups and downs in this new arrangement. Many of those able to work from home saved about an hour a day by not commuting.

Even now in Queensland, where most restrictions are currently lifted and a capacity crowd of more than 50,000 crammed into watch the 2020 State of Origin decider at Suncorp Stadium in November, many public servants and city office workers are still working from home at least a few days a week.

A capacity crowd cheers on the Maroons during the 2020 State of Origin decider at Suncorp Stadium.

A capacity crowd cheers on the Maroons during the 2020 State of Origin decider at Suncorp Stadium. Image: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

A capacity crowd cheers on the Maroons during the 2020 State of Origin decider at Suncorp Stadium. Image: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

In December 2020, the Google Community Mobility Report showed Australia-wide normal traffic in the workplace was down 12 per cent, alongside a 37 per cent drop below baseline in public transport mobility. However, an RACQ report found Brisbane traffic congestion in February this year to be well above average due to the reluctance of commuters to return to public transport.

There is no indication that the ‘pre-COVID-19 normal’ will be returning.

So, is the 'now normal' going to be the 'new normal'? And what does this mean for future urban environments? Architects are starting to build home offices with lighting and backgrounds correct for Zoom as part of their new houses. Will this continue? How will transport systems change when fewer people are using public transport?

Employers will want assurances that productivity will be maintained. What changes to work systems will this require?

Are there other opportunities for fast and nimble small businesses, especially in the move to online shopping? What about workplace relationships, and how will remote workplaces affect mental as well as physical health?

We asked several experts what the permanent fall-out of the pandemic will be on our business culture and, more broadly, how will Brisbane change?

A woman using a home camera and lighting set-up in her home-office.

Image: artiemedvedev/Adobe Stock

Image: artiemedvedev/Adobe Stock


Dr Dorina Pojani
Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning
School of Earth and Environmental Science

Possibly, the future will resemble the past. It was only after the Industrial Revolution that work spaces and living spaces were separated. So, it may be that we return to a pre-industrial lifestyle, where production, consumption and living are combined within the same building – as in the shop-houses of Singapore or Amsterdam.

For people with large houses, working from home doesn’t present a problem, but for people in cramped conditions, it does. Will a room that was a nursery now have to be the home office? Does that then mean a baby has to sleep in a room with their parents, rather than their own room? Or will some people forego parenthood altogether because their home lacks space for another human being?

There are other ways in which housing may change. The home office itself may become the home studio, equipped with high-level broadcast facilities, as Zoom – or its successor – becomes more important. We could see large-screen computers, in the way that we have seen large-screen TVs.

With growing concern about viruses, there could be a move away from carpets and textiles to surfaces that are easier to clean such as tiles, leather or linoleum. Another possibility is more modular and multipurpose furniture, which can be configured for different uses. Hygienic practices such as removing one’s shoes before entering a home – already prevalent in other cultures – may become widespread in Australia, too.

But as a society, we also need to work more on details like who will pay for the changes to homes. This year, when faced with a deadly pandemic, people just worked from home, no questions asked. But if it becomes a more permanent feature of working life, then should employers be subsidising the home office/studio? Running a home office involves expenses for power, internet, printing, lighting and furniture.

As these expenses have previously been met by employers in their workplace, is it fair that these now be shifted back to the employee?

With the need to live close to the office not as much of a priority these days, some people may choose more affordable housing in regional/rural communities, where there is also more space to accommodate home offices.

However, let's not forget that cities provide other attractions in addition to proximity to work. People like cities for their cultural and educational offerings and the more vibrant atmosphere and lifestyle. Perhaps the challenge will be to extend these amenities to regional communities so that residents don't feel like they're missing out by not living in a big city. That may help rebalance the population distribution around the country and relieve some of the housing pressures from the state capitals.

A man rides to work in the Brisbane CBD.

Image: Jono Searle/Stringer/Getty Images

Image: Jono Searle/Stringer/Getty Images


Dr Jake Whitehead
Tritium e-Mobility Fellow
UQ Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation

The silver lining to the COVID-19-induced lockdowns was that working from home changed our transportation patterns, with fewer people commuting and fewer cars on the road. This meant better air quality and less road congestion. But with reports showing an increase in traffic congestion in Brisbane in recent months as people return to work, we need to build on those positive changes so that the post-COVID-19 future is not only different but better. This will require decisive action from governments and employers.

Governments must also provide alternatives to cars. One of the most promising alternatives is electric micromobility, including electric bikes and scooters. During 2020, we saw sales of these devices skyrocket, but our infrastructure to support them is still lacking. Building active transport infrastructure should be a priority to ensure pedestrians, cyclists and micromobility riders can safely share space, while being protected from cars, buses and trucks.

Ideally, a hybrid model would emerge where many of us work from home a few days per week, and on the remaining days opt to take an electric bike (or other active transport) to our workplace to get some fresh air. And for those who cannot work from home, this approach means they will experience less road congestion due to fewer cars on the road.

A woman looking stressed while working from home.

Image: nenetus/Adobe Stock

Image: nenetus/Adobe Stock

Mental health

Dr Fiona Jayne Charlson
School of Public Health
Faculty of Medicine

Different people have been impacted in different ways through being forced to work from home. Many people appreciated the extra time with their families – it seemed the nation’s mental health as a whole improved through not having to commute – but it was tough on some people who lived by themselves and for whom work was a social activity in its own right.

At the initial stages of lockdown, people had to work from home by themselves in isolation. But after some restrictions were eased, we saw other interim arrangements, such as workmates meeting at one person’s house so that two or three of them could work collaboratively together. These sort of hybrid arrangements are probably going to become more regular.

I think that while 2020 was a tough year, it has opened up a lot of possibilities. The traditional office was really designed pre-internet and pre-communications, so people needed to be in the office. What this year showed is that it is possible to use these tools to work productively remotely, giving more flexibility in the workplace. People working from home can organise their time better. This greater flexibility has the potential to lead to happier employees. 

Colleagues laughing during a casual catch-up in the office.

Image: fizkes/Getty Images

Image: fizkes/Getty Images

Workplace relations

Dr Nik Steffens
School of Psychology
Faculty of Health and Behavioural Science

One of the possible long-term consequences of more working from home is that it will immensely change the social nature of our workplace relationships.

Work consists not just of formal interactions, but also many informal ones which are particularly valuable for organisational functioning. Encounters in the office kitchen, unsolicited office visits, and corridor conversations are often vital in resolving problems or clearing up matters when the language or tone of formal interactions fails to accurately convey a message.

These matters can often be resolved over the water cooler, by making a cup of coffee, or through walking across shared spaces. And it is these broader informal but important social interactions that are under threat in a post-COVID world.

But, aside from work considerations, many people meet their friends and even life partners at their workplace. Sometimes those informal corridor conversations aren’t all about work. So, if there are fewer people finding their partners at their physical workplaces, perhaps there is a new opportunity for online dating apps?

A woman tries to talk on the phone with her baby on her lap, while working from home.

Image: nataliaderiabina/Adobe Stock

Image: nataliaderiabina/Adobe Stock


Associate Professor Remi Ayoko
Management Discipline Leader
School of Business

For employers, working from home presents challenges in monitoring the productivity of their employees, but several new methods could all become more prominent while working from home in the ‘post-COVID-19 future’.

One is the possibility of having robotics and artificial intelligence working side-by-side with humans to increase productivity and perhaps AI machines could monitor employees working from home in the future.

Managers may also use a monitoring software, such as CleverControl, to gauge their employees' performance. Employees can be monitored by telephone conversation and by checking the amount and quality of their work on a regular basis.

But managers need to be wary of engaging in monitoring activities that diminish employees’ privacy and must make sure that they are acting within privacy regulations. Additionally, excessive monitoring and micromanaging may induce employees’ stress and poor wellbeing. Monitoring should be used with care, sparingly and transparently.

There also needs to be strong cyber security to deter hackers. Where such technology is missing, managers can do a daily telephone check-in with employees. Such phone check-in will be important – especially if it is a routine job – to clarify where the employees signed off yesterday and what tasks lie ahead for the day.

Finally, to monitor employees, managers may need to bring employees into the traditional office from time to time – possibly once a week, fortnight, or month – to interact with their colleagues. This will provide employees with the opportunity to communicate and connect with colleagues, ask questions, and get emotional support from their team members.

A view of Southbank in Brisbane.

Image: Education Images/Contributor/Getty Images

Image: Education Images/Contributor/Getty Images

Where we live and work

Dr Thomas Sigler
Senior Lecturer in Human Geography
School of Earth and Environmental Sciences

The COVID-19 pandemic has led us to re-think how we live and work. It has accelerated trends that were already happening, such as working from home, tapering public transport usage, and long-distance commuting. In our research, we have found that globalisation and human mobility are associated with COVID-19 diffusion, meaning that trends like decreased business travel, lower international migration, and increased teleconferencing may be sustained into the future. These trends have major ramifications for the built environment.

Working from home means that a shift away from office buildings makes CBDs less attractive to companies. Our research has shown that there was already a shift from the CBD to other inner-city areas. In Brisbane, these are places like Auchenflower, Fortitude Valley, Bowen Hills and West End. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that space is cheaper, building footprints and floor plates are generally more generous, and a lot of these neighbourhoods offer ‘live-work-play’ amenities that encourage younger labour forces to live locally. This is especially true in certain sectors, including tech and others where startups prevail over large legacy firms and government departments. The pandemic has only reinforced the value of having a flexible floor plan, less time in elevators (in lower-rise buildings), and more parking on-site. As firms leave the CBD, it's possible that city centres will, to some degree, adapt new roles as entertainment hubs.

In terms of where we live, one implication of the pandemic is a shift away from major cities. The main culprit is housing affordability, which makes regions relatively more appealing. The greatest growth areas in Australia since early 2020 have been places like the Gold and Sunshine Coasts in Queensland, and the Northern Rivers (Byron Bay) and Central Coast regions of New South Wales. Typically, these areas offer high amenity and are relatively well connected to major centres. At the height of the pandemic, for example, Ballina to Sydney was one of the most popular air routes in the country. The same is true in countries like the US, where regional centres like Boise, Idaho, have grown rapidly.

Another implication of how we live is the sudden preference for larger homes and/or parcels. With home offices suddenly commanding a premium, urban housing markets have been reinvigorated by buyers demanding more space. This is particularly true in Brisbane. Unlike Melbourne and Sydney, both of which rely heavily on international migration, Brisbane is a net receiver of internal migrants, many of whom arrive in the Sunshine State with sizeable housing budgets.

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