These last 18 months accelerated a long-coming trend in flexible work, providing many workers — especially tech workers — an opportunity to better balance and blend their work and home lives. Like it or not, hybrid work is here to stay, which presents a rare opportunity to redesign our downtowns to benefit everyone.
A recent tech-worker survey from sea.citi revealed 8 in 10 workers want to work from home at least two days a week post-COVID-19. Tech companies across the region continue to adapt their policies to attract and retain talent, each with a slightly different offering. Amazon recently announced teams would determine their mix of in-office and remote work. Facebook expanded remote work options to more employees earlier this year. Zillow put a stake in the ground as a remote-first company. This is a positive and needed change for workers.
The flurry of changes from our area’s tech companies continues to be misinterpreted as a nail in the coffin for small businesses and property owners positioned to serve a daily flow of workers from outlying areas. True, these shifts will create a lasting impact on our region’s urban centers, but the office is not obsolete in hybrid work. In-person collaboration will still be important, but the flow of workers headed downtown will likely favor Tuesday through Thursday and is unlikely to reach pre-pandemic levels.
For candidates seeking office this year, this evolving landscape provides a significant opportunity to reimagine our region. In Seattle, it is a clear opening for the equitable recovery so widely talked about. Outstanding candidates will provide us with clear plans on how the shift to hybrid work can help us weave issues together and address homelessness, affordable housing, racial inequities and economic recovery. Seattle has everything to lose while more nimble outlying suburbs position themselves from bedroom communities to work-from-home oases.
The strategy to approach downtown as a neighborhood, a place to live, work and play, has great merit. We already have a head start with the largest population living downtown in the last decade. Downtown should not be just a destination for events or a workplace, but a diverse, dense, urban community that affords residents all the benefits of big-city living.
Imagine what downtown could be if elected leaders and policymakers worked with intention starting now: Mixed income housing options that provide living opportunities for residents from diverse incomes. Rezoned commercial buildings could include three-bedroom apartments that attract carless families, decrease emissions and grow the neighborhood. A new elementary school would support these families as they grow and already is a possibility.
Newly opened light-rail stations would provide access to outlying areas, connecting residents to the region and shuttling the workforce for less frequent commutes. Restaurants and services focus on serving residents with shops and cafes staying open until 10 p.m., keeping downtown bustling from early morning until late at night.
Much of the needed infrastructure to realize this vision is already here, but near-term investments in mental-health services, addiction treatment, dignified shelter and public safety must be made as the precursors to change. Over the next decade, targeted public policy and cross-sector collaboration will be essential to the transformation of downtown.
We can only begin this process once we recognize and accept our new reality: COVID-19 and hybrid-work policies have forever changed the flow of people into our downtown. We need elected officials, policymakers and fellow business leaders who recognize this change is already underway so we can start the hard work now.