Infratil’s general manager of development Andrew Lamb is Britomart-based and urging his teams to get back to the office. He’s also contemplating what the office of the near-future might look like. 

JEREMY HANSEN Your background is in the commercial development of office buildings and city precincts. What do you think the pandemic has changed about the office?

ANDREW LAMB It’s like the work environment is now almost regarded as a place of risk, so you have to change that. And we’ve got used to the younger generation wanting to be able to flex and have more time for their own personal lives, which is good, yet what you find with remote work is you lose that connectivity to your team. To drag someone out of an environment where you can be in your tracksuit pants and a T-shirt and be comfortable, you actually have to make your work environment even more attractive. The spaces have to be designed so they offer more than ever before. When I first started working, we were all in offices – even the junior people had an office. Nowadays, no one has an office. It’s all open-plan and more collaborative and I personally like it. But we’ve got to also create those spaces where people can have their quiet time. You don’t necessarily want the rest of your office hearing about when you’ve got to have a doctor’s appointment or you’ve had an argument with your wife and you’re having to apologise or something like that. So how do you actually make your work environment attractive enough that people want to come?

JH It seems like we’re currently in a situation where nobody knows the answer to that –it’s a holding pattern in which nobody wants to make the wrong call.

AL I believe that corporate Auckland has a responsibility to get people back to work. The numbers of people currently aren’t there to make some of the restaurants and cafes really sustainable. We want all those services in the central area, as those services support the office functions and the corporate side of the city. And if we don’t get people back into the city, they’ll all fail and people won’t want to come into the city because they can’t get a sandwich. It’s a potential spiral. We don’t want Auckland to become a tumbleweed city. You have to provide the amenity to make someone want to come in. And I think as a city, we now have to really focus on what’s happening at the ground level. Public open spaces, precinct development – all those informal meeting spaces – and a sense of place are extremely important.

JH As people have gotten comfortable at home and in their neighborhoods, I’ve sensed that a lot of them feel the fate of the central city is not their problem. Also, many people seem to feel when it comes to decisions about remote versus in-office work that the balance of power now sits with the employee, not the employer.

AL My view is to say you work from the office unless you have a reason to stay at home. From a business perspective, I think the leaders in organisations need to take a hard look at how productive their workforces are. I think the pendulum has swung a little bit too far in favour of the softly, softly approach and I’m probably a little bit more old-school. But you can create a culture within an office that encourages people to actually come in.

JH So what does the office that responds to these concerns look like to you?

AL It has to be people-focused and people-centric. It can draw from trends in residential construction. I think office environments will need to refresh more regularly than at the end of a 10-year lease; they’ll continuously have to evolve. You’ve got to actually offer the spaces that people can sit and collaborate in, as well as encouraging people to bump into colleagues from other parts of the organisation.

JH You work for an organisation that is very internationally focused. Does the argument that people have to come to the office get harder to run when you’re connecting virtually with colleagues in other offices most days anyway?

AL Yeah, it is. We now are quite international. We started out in Wellington, moved to Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne, New York, London and all of that. And those collaborations just become that much more difficult. It takes a lot more energy and effort and I don’t know that we always get it right. You cannot run a construction project over Teams, for example. It’s just simply impossible. You learn from people by being around people and having your mentors and being under someone’s wing. You can go and ask them a question and say, ‘Hey, I’m not really sure on this’. You can walk two desks away for an answer, not have to ring someone or book a Teams call. I think we’ve become far less productive because of the Teams environment. You never see someone scheduling a 10-minute call, do you? And often it is only a 10-minute conversation that’s needed.

JH The city centre is facing a unique set of challenges. Given your own experience in the development sector, where do you think city centres are generally headed?

AL There have always been winners and losers in city areas as trends change. You think of where Britomart was 20 years ago – no one ever would’ve come through here, it was the wrong place to be. If you looked at the Britomart buildings 15 years ago, you wouldn’t have known what to do with them. One of the problems of regeneration is it takes a very short period to destroy something and a very long time to rebuild it. But I’m an optimist by heart, and there are positives. I think we’ve had two years of turbulence, but the city centre offers an awful lot. To start with, the city fathers need to make sure that the city centre is safe at all times, because that will encourage people to stay. We don’t have the big commercial office market of Sydney or other international cities so we have to cut our cloth. If you use urban regeneration focused on what activities need to happen in the city centre, then you can actually plan for a city centre which is active and alive. You’ve now got a much stronger university precinct that was never really there 20 years ago, so embrace that. If the office buildings are no longer the highest quality and best use, turn them back into something else – convert them to apartment buildings, because that brings life into a city. Some buildings are going to suffer because of ownership titles – a lot of unit-titling of buildings kills their future development potential, but the city can actually take a pro-active approach on stimulating regeneration by using the Public Works Act to buy up people’s tenure for urban redevelopment. So with a bit of strong leadership in those areas and using what’s available to you – and tweaking legislation that needs to be tweaked – you can create urban regeneration.

Click here to read the other interviews in our City Futures series.