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Office Space: New York’s Empty Offices and the Effort to Fill Them

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Months into life with COVID-19, one aspect of pandemic life is adapting slower than the rest. While the Open Restaurant and Open Storefront Programs have allowed us to return to eating out and shopping, with some caveats, the office space remains stuck in its initial work-from-home stage. Of course, this new normal does not apply to all workers. Essential workers and those whose jobs simply cannot be done remotely have no choice but continue in person with preventative measures in place. However, for those whose work can be done remotely, a new normal seems to be setting in.

According to a survey of large business owners, a staggering 85% of NYC office workers have yet to return to their respective buildings. [1] The phenomenon is not a result of governmental mandate. New York allowed employers and employees to return to their office spaces with social distancing and PPE months ago. So, why are we all still at home?

One answer might be that working from home is actually ideal for employers. If companies can maximize employee safety without sacrificing productivity, then, it seems, they very well ought to. Viral spread within the workplace can be devastating to operations and the state of containment is very much uncertain. With clusters popping up in the outer boroughs of the city and local lockdowns following soon after, transitioning back remains risky in terms of worker safety and worker productivity. 

As such, it’s actually companies, not municipalities, that have decided, for the most part, that working from home is still the best option. Even more, a few notable companies like Facebook and Google have begun to experiment with permanent work-from-home and hybrid productivity models for certain employees. Reported increases in employee productivity, satisfaction, and, for the time being, safety, have prompted these shifts, which may change the nature of work in the telecom age entirely.  

However, the ideal combination of maximized employee productivity, satisfaction, and safety does not hold for all companies. Some, like Bloomberg LP, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase, have realized that they rely heavily on in person collaboration. Accordingly, they are doing what they can to shift back from remote work to office work by implementing COVID-19 preparedness strategies. With social distancing measures in place and PPE readily available, these companies are urging employees to come back and even providing incentives to return. The New York Times reports on the surge in benefits for office workers including subsidized garage memberships, more office space, free meals and even “educational pods” for children to attend online school at their parents’ offices. [2]

Collaboration-heavy companies aren’t the only ones who want their employees to return, though. Real estate agencies have especially taken on the task of returning to work in person, as they hold a special stake in the debate of where and how we work. If work-from-home becomes a new normal–and becomes more readily available, affordable, and efficient–the cost and purpose of office buildings gets thrown into question. These agencies are attempting to demonstrate, by example, that the office is indispensable to productivity and that work-from-home is and should be a temporary solution only. The Real Deal reports that 73% of employees at real estate companies had returned by the end of October. [3]

Ultimately, the way in which this pandemic unfolds will determine the way companies and the city responds. What some have seen as a necessary effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 may now indeed be the new normal. Regardless, employers and employees will have to continue to adapt to work under COVID-19 as a second wave looms, lockdowns return, and the economy hangs in the balance.

 

Sources:

[1] – “Return to Office Survey Results Released – October,” The Partnership for New York City, 30 Oct. 2020, https://pfnyc.org/news/return-to-office-survey-results-released-october/, accessed 2 Nov. 2020.

[2] – Goodman, J. David, “These Are the Perks Companies Use to Get Workers Back to Their Offices,” The New York Times, 28 Oct. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/30/nyregion/new-york-city-office-coronavirus.html, accessed 2 Nov. 2020. 

[3] – TRD New York/TRD Staff, “NYC offices get creative to lure workers back,” The Real Deal: New York Real Estate News, 30 Oct. 2020, https://therealdeal.com/2020/10/30/nyc-offices-get-creative-to-lure-workers-back/, accessed 2 Nov. 2020.

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