Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from Adam Segal, co-founder and CEO of cove.
Our daily routine has gone out the window amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including a cosmic shift away from shared spaces like the office. This has catapulted us into the future, accelerating home as our epicenter for work.
The traditional office now faces a crucial question that shopping malls haven’t been able to answer for years: Why make the trip when you can get a similar result from your couch? The office is at a crossroads to innovate, or it risks getting cut from the future of work.
With so many digital tools at our fingertips, many of us have likely wondered, why go to the office at all? Employers had traditionally been slow to make the transition to a home-based workforce, but that abruptly changed as the new coronavirus forced employers to adjust to a workday that forever removes the remote stigma.
A recent Gartner study found 74% of surveyed CFOs planned to shift some employees to remote work permanently post-coronavirus, highlighting this change in the perception of working from home. And Morgan Stanley’s CEO James Gorman recently told Bloomberg that he foresees "much less real estate" for the company moving forward, as employees have "proven we can operate with no footprint."
The evolution of the office
Why do we have offices in the first place? Well, as a short primer, companies needed to collocate large numbers of employees for sedentary roles in accounting, banking, insurance and marketing to support growth and distribution amid the industrial boom. As the U.S. workforce increasingly outsourced manufacturing abroad, white collar jobs slowly took up a majority of the workforce, requiring a lot of office space over the last 100 years.
Cities essentially expanded their downtown areas to accommodate these job-generating office buildings, but with the onset of new technologies, office space demand in those areas is now seeing a decline. Downtown Washington, DC, for instance, ended 2019 with its highest level of office vacancy since 1993. When employees are asked why they love their employers, the answer is usually more contingent on employer benefits or coworkers than the allure of the office space.
In a post-coronavirus world, some companies will elect to stay entirely remote. The future of work is undoubtedly distributed, however the office has a window of opportunity to reinvent itself from space to a key business resource. Culture, identity and collaboration —the office can own these buzzwords that actually matter to an organization by drastically shrinking and replacing desks with meeting rooms, communal tables and gathering areas like kitchens and dining sections.
Instead of working from home once each week, a post-coronavirus world may instead see employees traveling to the office once each week. The office will transform from feeling half empty and awkwardly quiet into a bustling workday experience of meetings and engagement that you cannot get at home.
Enabling remote work to support citywide goals
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans spend an average of 54 minutes commuting to and from work each day. Remote work enables more productive hours by virtually eliminating the need to leave the house at all, which can increase employer output and greatly benefit city priorities like infrastructure and the environment.
Transportation is the top contributor of GHG emissions in the U.S., at 30%, and cities are often implementing measures to lower the sector’s emissions. If state and municipal leaders support the future of remote work, less cars will be used for commutes, leading to dips in emission levels and less strain on infrastructure.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is one state leader who showed support for remote work capacities, even before the pandemic; last year, Baker proposed a $2,000-per-employee tax credit for companies that allow telework.
As we move into the "recovery" stage of the current health crisis, cities should provide clear guidelines to companies on how to best use office space, especially considering Americans' reliance on crowded public transit. This guidance can come in many forms, from suggested office frequency to mandated telework days.
Cities leaders are best equipped to create and implement these guidelines or policies for businesses, in order to count for local dynamics; what is best for Chicago will not be the same for Nashville. Cities should avoid placing the decision directly in the hands of businesses and their leaders who are struggling to weigh safety concerns with uncertain revenues.
Successful companies will not force people to commute downtown to work everyday — now or in the future. Big changes are happening, and they will ultimately result in many empty floors across more than 11 billion square feet of U.S. office space. The office still has a chance to be a key part of the future of work, just redesigned in a way you may have never imagined.