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The Covid-induced evolution of Australia’s office sector is facing a new challenge: vaccinated versus non-vaccinated occupiers.

With vaccination rates rising and employers planning a return to the office for their workers, a question mark looms over how organisations with different vaccination policies will share the same buildings.

According to JLL’s head of research Andrew Ballantyne, a speaker at The Urban Developer The New Workplace vSummit, it is an issue with potentially major ramifications for the office sector but is yet to play out.

“If you look at the US, a number of organisations—and it’s a very diverse group of organisations, including some big multinationals—have come out and said we want our people vaccinated in order for them to return to the workplace,” Ballantyne said.

“I think it’s going to be an interesting one to watch in terms of the evolution in occupier requirements … because, ultimately, they’re sharing the same common areas, they’re sharing end-of-trip facilities.

“Will these organisations want to be in a building where the rest of the occupiers don’t actually have the same mandate?

“Or will they see that as a greater risk for their people and say we only want to occupy space in an office building with other organisations that are vaccinated?

“It’s a bit too early to tell … we haven’t seen it play out anywhere yet but when it does you’ll have the whole challenge from an operational perspective of how you’re going to manage it.”

Ballantyne told the summit another interesting question for the new workplace related to social distancing protocols and “could that potentially mean we see a form of de-densification”.

“I do think there have been some benefits to social distancing and that’s been reflected in organisations typically reporting a lower number of sick days,” he said.

But he said an extended efficiency drive had created workplace ratios that were much lower in Australia than in other countries and so it was unlikely too many organisations would move towards that de -densification trend.

“I think we can all agree that the pandemic has shown we can work in a more flexible manner and we can maintain a degree of productivity through a hybrid working model,” Ballantyne said.

“But it’s too naive to think every organisation is going to embrace the hybrid model … the degree of flexibility is clearly going to differ by industry sector, it’s going to differ by job type and it’s also going to differ by demographics.”

Ballantyne said despite the challenges ahead there were positive signs for the office sector going forward.

He said although vacancy rates across global markets have increased over the past 18 months, leasing activity was beginning to improve, particularly in the technology, finance and insurance, and government sectors.

“We also believe the future of jobs and the evolution of the labour markets as we move into the digital economy is a tailwind for the office sector,” Ballantyne said.

“If you go back to 1990, out of every 100 white collar jobs 55 had the potential to be in office space. Pre-Covid that was up to 70 (out of 100) and over the next 10 years it is expected to jump to 73 (out of 100).”

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