I’m a tricky one to ask about the future of offices. That’s because my adult work life has consisted of being an EMT, a university theater instructor and a journalist for more than three decades.
I never worked in a dreary cubicle farm. My offices were ambulances running hot to trauma scenes or hospitals where my skills could save lives; the magic of the theater, and — for most of my career as a reporter, editor and columnist — the newsroom.
Few places can compare with a newsroom working an important story. Deadline is always pulsing. Camaraderie is close. Even in quiet time, you talk journalism with respected colleagues. Years ago, when printing was done on-site, you could watch and hear the presses thunder.
For me, the “office” was thrilling. And I didn’t want to bring it home, although in today’s news cycle, we never close.
So much for personal history.
What happens to office work as the delta variant delays a large-scale return to face-to-face work is a question of enormous consequence to companies, developers, employees and such important sidelights as restaurants, shops and transit.
The coronavirus shutdown forced a massive experiment on a sizable portion of the workforce: Working from home. And for some it’s no doubt been a revelation. Turns out they hate their jobs! Others hate the office itself and commuting.
A Pew Research Center poll this past December found that 54% of respondents who worked from home wanted to continue it once the pandemic eased. That is, if they can. Some 64% of respondents with bachelor’s degrees could work remotely, while only 23% without a four-year degree can do so.
On the other hand, a more recent survey by The New York Times reported that 45% of respondents wanted to be full time in the workplace or office, versus 31% who preferred to work from home and 24% who wanted a hybrid work split between the office and home.
Less has been written about this “silent majority” that likes the office and is depressed by the delta speed bump.
As for commuting, driving can be a pain — some advocates of remote work promote it as a way to lower greenhouse gas emissions. But transit offers time to read, wind down, catch up on other tasks and chat with friends.
Houston trial lawyer John Zavitsanos put a fine point on the importance of in-office work in a New York Times op-ed:
“Advocates … hoped that working from home would not slow productivity significantly and could obviate the need for office space in the future,” he wrote. “But in a remote-work setting, we never matched the team creativity and production we had taken for granted at our office. On Zoom, some people were distracted and anxious to leave meetings, but in person, they were engaged and animated — there was just no comparison.”
As a result of this and a “moral obligation” to support the city, his firm went back to the office with protections in place.
So far, he’s in the minority. In Seattle’s central core, about 24% of workers were in the office as of Aug. 8. That compares with 76% on March 1, 2020.
Still, the city’s heart is beating. The Downtown Seattle Association just reported that in the first half of the year, 21 developments were completed in the city center, with 25 more set to finish at the end of the year. The first-half completions topped all of 2020. The most popular component is new residential developments. And even with pandemic uncertainty, 2.5 million square feet of downtown office space is expected to be completed in 2021. The office vacancy rate is 11.6%.
Nor is downtown office construction fading elsewhere. For example, Caltrain is finalizing plans for 1.1 million square feet of space in two towers near San Jose’s train station. This goes along with Google’s aggressive transformation of the California city’s downtown. Big Tech is moving into Manhattan. And, of course, Amazon is building HQ2 in northern Virginia.
But premier urban scholar Richard Florida says that while early predictions that COVID-19 would kill cities have been spectacularly wrong, the pandemic will fundamentally alter most central business districts.
“The decline of the old-style CBD does not mean the death of the neighborhoods that house them,” he writes. “Their locations are just too good — too central, too dense, and with too much infrastructure and architecture — to remain vacuums for long.”
He and other urbanists see downtowns evolving into neighborhoods that leverage density to include more low-income housing and opportunities for businesses owned by people of color. The so-called 15-minute city puts essentials within easy walking and biking reach.
“We have a once-in-a-century opportunity to turn our business districts and our cities into something better, less divided, and more inclusive,” Florida writes. “Shame on us if we fail to grasp it.”
I continue to think much of this is more aspirational than realistic for most places, certainly Seattle. Our downtown already offers close-by amenities, cultural assets and residential options.
One reader continues to evangelize the power of remote work, encouraging me to “lean in” to the change. Maybe he’s right. I don’t know. In my experience, I didn’t want away from the office. I wanted flexibility.
What I also know is that it’s foolhardy to bet against great cities. And that includes as a place to work together.