With COVID-19 vaccines widely dispensed and masking requirements mostly lifted, will “work from home” end? Will workers return to downtown offices at pre-pandemic levels?
Probably not. One big reason is because it is expensive to drive and because of the waste of time and fuel idling in traffic jams. Another is safety.
Gas prices continue to skyrocket. Last year, the average cost at the pump was $2.62 per gallon. By the end of March, Seattle’s gasoline increased to $4.88 per gallon, according to GasBuddy’s latest survey of 775 stations in the city.
Higher energy costs are driving up prices for everything including public transit. The annual inflation rate in the United States was 7.9% for the 12 months ending February 2022 — the highest since January 1982, according to U.S. Labor Department data.
Safe places to work is an added problem. Crime in Seattle forced Amazon to temporarily close a downtown office building last month where 1,800 employees were assigned. Many returned to working from home.
In February, MyNorthwest reported Seattle’s overall crime rate increased by 10% from 2020 to 2021. Violent crime increased by 20%, property crime went up 9%, aggravated assaults were up 24%, and robberies rose by 18%.
“Working from home will be very much a part of our post-COVID economy,” added Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom, who is the co-director of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship program. “So, the sooner policymakers and business (employers) think of the implications of a home-based workforce, the better our firms and communities will be positioned.”
Reuters reported that U.S.-based Enterprises Technology Research surveyed 1,200 chief information officers who indicated more than one-third of their workers are “permanently remote” in 2021.
The logical follow-up question: Should employers (business and government) get rid of offices altogether?
“No, but you may want to move it,” Bloom said.
What is happening, however, is offices are moving from skyscrapers to industrial parks where there is ample free parking and easier access.
The pandemic reversed the urban growth pattern starting in the 1980s “when Americans have flocked to revitalized downtowns.”
Occupied office space in Seattle has grown 34% since 2010, according to the Downtown Seattle Association. Many of those towers sat hollow during the pandemic. Roughly 90% of the 47 million square feet of leased Seattle office space was vacated as a result of the pandemic.” (That survey was last year).
Regardless, whether offices are in tall buildings, strip malls or industrial parks, they must be reconfigured. They need to be roomier and arranged for social distancing. So will lobbies, elevators, breakrooms, transit buses, and commuter trains which often were crammed to capacity.
Work from home is not for everyone. Bloom found only half of the people surveyed were able to work from home at an efficiency rate of 80% or more.
“These are mostly managers, professionals and financial workers who can easily carry out their work on their computers by videoconference, phone and email,” Bloom said. “The remaining half of Americans don’t benefit from those technological workarounds — many employees in retail, health care, transportation and business services cannot do their jobs anywhere other than a traditional workplace.”
Forbes pointed out the decade between 2020 and 2030 will see the number of Americans eligible to work at its lowest point since the Civil War.
“So it is a good thing that remote work makes many employees happier and more productive because companies will want to hold onto those employees,” Bloom noted.
Remote versus on-site work is a complex issue — one which requires creative inclusive problem solving. Over the last two years inflation, public safety and soaring gas prices complicated the issue. However, those factors must be considered.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.