Cicada: Art imitating life (why COVID-19 has changed the way we live forever)

I recently purchased a storybook to read to my children called Cicada by Shaun Tan. While not thinking much of it when I clicked “Add to cart” the story ended up being a beautifully illustrated allegory of corporate drudgery and the monotony of the rat race.

The story is set in a grey nameless city filled with skyscrapers with a cicada in the nymph stage who works among humans as a data entry clerk in an endless sea of grey cubicles. The cicada works for 17 years without holidays, making no mistakes, working back late alone while the humans leave, and without sick days. He finally retires without so much as a thank you.

“No work. No home. No money.

Cicada go to top of tall building.

Time to say goodbye.

Tok Tok Tok!”

While the reader expects one thing is going to happen, the cicada’s body splits open and a beautiful glowing adult cicada emerges with translucent wings and flies off to the forest, laughing at the humans.

This topic of a corporate dystopia has been skirted around in pop culture many times from Keanu Reeves portrayal of Thomas Anderson in The Matrix, a quiet computer programmer working for a “respectable software company”, to Ed Norton’s role as an automobile recall assessor in Fight Club deciding whether it was profitable or not to issue recalls on vehicle faults that result in the fiery deaths of the purchasers! While sometimes tongue in cheek, these movies seem to have struck a chord with viewers – many who seem to feel the same way as the protagonists.

Each generation has a defining financial crisis that alters their view of the world. The current one is working from home for two years, the one before was the GFC, the one before that was the tech bust. This time the unending strangeness of 2020 and 2021 seems to have brought about an awakening of sorts – forcing people to rethink what is important in their lives. In addition, the move to working from home across many employment sectors began to raise questions about what an office is, and the purpose of its existence. The more forward-thinking companies recognise that output was the metric to judge performance against rather than time spent in front of a desk.

Most people found that their quality of life improved while working from home. It’s estimated that 30-50% of jobs can be done remotely but we’re not quite there yet – probably because we have managers that are still struggling to understand remote work. The tall office towers in the city were only built for executives – those who can’t wait to get back to the office, and not for the other 70% of the people that work in them, who largely have clerical and admin roles for which it makes no difference whether they’re physically in the office or not.

Interestingly it turned out that wearing masks and being in lockdown wasn’t the true dystopia for most people, rather it was getting on the train and sitting in a cubicle grinding it out nine to five every day, year after year. Many companies have recognised this and have stated that working from home part-time will now be a permanent change. This change was already underway pre-pandemic with the move towards hot-desking allowing companies to cut down on their office rents by up to 30%. It’s likely that the pandemic just accelerated the progress by 15 to 20 years. Even looking at travel data, business travel is 30% what it was pre-pandemic. In contrast personal travel is through the roof because people seem to want experiences now after being locked down.

When there are changes in technology that impact the way we live it’s always useful to try and front-run the market in order to get a competitive advantage. Meeting the demands of both your potential tenant and purchaser pool better will result in both lower vacancy rates and higher gross rents as well as prospective buyers willing to pay more to purchase your property when it comes time to sell.

With the move towards working from home comes a change in the type of property that will be in demand in the future. It’s likely that apartment buildings with provisions for shared office space as part of their amenities will increasingly be sought after. In the right areas, the purchasers with the foresight to look for these types of features in their investment properties are likely to reap the benefits in the long run.

 


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