It’s time to review some of my comments of 2020 in light of recent events. So here is an account of city centers revisited: updated to 2022. I said in 2020 that there would be an exodus of office workers from city centers for two reasons: covid-19 and the ease of teleworking. Indeed that happened worldwide. City centers that normally were bustling became deserted even in mid-weeks. I also predicted that, as Covid-19 dangers eased, some office workers would come back to their former offices full time — but most would not. So far that prediction has held in 2022.
Here’s some of what has happened, as reported by various news media.
My idea then (and for many years before that) was that disasters such as Covid-19 would force people to desert crowded spaces in order to prevent becoming infected. Office workers would be able to work effectively from home because of the capabilities of contemporary technology. Although this would be a sudden and major cultural shock to traditional hierarchical organizations, the pressures of survival would force them to reorganize into the new situation. The new organization forms would fairly quickly restabilize and everyone would breath huge sighs of relief. That’s what actually happened in the past two years, much to my surprise. “Eureka, it worked!” was the thought, if not the pronouncement, of many a CEO.
Then began the Now What? period. Having survived the immediate catastrophe, how can we get back to “normal” was in the minds of most senior executives. “Normal” being the way things were before the pesky catastrophe that caused it all. Let’s move everybody back to the city centers.
But wait! After two years of working from home the refashioned teleworkers, now called remote workers, were quite unenthusiastic about the prospect of enduring the daily commute. They were much more enthusiastic about the new arrangements of mostly or always working from home. Many protested that they would rather quit than be forced into that 20th century, city center slavery mode. Many did quit, I am told, and moved to new, telecommuting-positive employers without picking up their households as well. Technology made it easy!
Further, many employees had already moved to more regions where they could find good homes without big city prices. Employers also discovered that they could hire other people from those more distant regions; people who had just the talents that were needed by the business. Horizons were broadened for both employees and employers.
In just two years organizational culture had reconfigured itself.
Many CEOs were not impressed or were even hostile to these changes. their idea is that, while we can put up with these disruptions during the pandemic, it’s time to get back to that normal again. Even though research has shown that teleworkers are more productive, the CEO resistance to this form of change remains.
Yet the thought of internal revolution has made them rethink things. Now even Apple is allowing employees to work from home at least part time — as long as they’re in the office at least three days each week (something that’s still under negotiation). Elon Musk is against this telework nonsense altogether — except in his own case, that is.
So far the national results are converging on our findings 22 years ago: Office workers are moving to in-office work about 2 to 3 days per week, the rest of their time spent working at home or elsewhere.
Emptied city centers
Because of all this, other than tourist traffic, city centers still have a glut of empty office space. Yet the attitudes of urban planner seem largely unchanged. The Wall Street Journal notes the problem in many big cities.
More than two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, exasperation is growing among business, city and community leaders across the U.S. who have seen offices left behind while life returns to normal at restaurants, airlines, sporting events and other places where people gather.[The Wall Street Journal. July 7, 2022. Big Cities Can’t Get Workers Back to the Office.]
Even worse, plans for new office space apparently are going ahead regardless of the new culture. A big new office complex atop Penn Station? This may not be a great investment opportunity.
The trends seems to be leveling off. Telework (hybrid/remote) seems to be here to stay for tens of millions of former office workers worldwide. But the shape, content and nature of city centers is still evolving and will be doing so for decades.
There is still reinventing work to do.