on Sep 21, 2020
Work from Home Will Fade. Work from Anywhere Will Thrive.
Written by Danny Fuchs, Kate Wittels, Jessica Jiang, and Adam Tanaka
At this point, much has been written about the extent to which COVID-19 has disrupted commercial real estate occupancy. The share of remote workers nationwide surged from 13% to nearly 50% in a matter of weeks this spring. Six months later, office districts from Los Angeles to New York remain largely empty. Even as infection rates wane, evidence is mounting that the pandemic is accelerating a shift toward greater flexibility in talent’s choice of workplace. The white-collar Work from Home experiment of mid-2020 is beginning to end. In its wake, a new Work from Anywhere economy will rise.
HR&A’s own physical footprint has been evolving toward a Work from Anywhere model for some time. Six years ago, the firm maintained open plan offices in desirable mixed-use districts in New York City, Washington DC, and Los Angeles. By the start of 2020, employee preferences, a need to service a broader client base, and technological advancements had produced a more dispersed web of work environments. HR&Aers were working not only in our three “traditional” offices, but also in a retail storefront office in Dallas, coworking facilities in Raleigh and Chicago, and home offices in Atlanta and Vermont, as well as transient workplaces in numerous airports, hotels, and client offices across the country. This diffusion of work environments has been reinforced by the pandemic, as employees have moved closer to family while schools are closed, temporarily relocated to try a new city, or bought homes (and home offices) outside of the urban core but with the ability to commute to the office regularly. Two weeks ago, HR&A reopened its New York office at the request of staff who will use the space on a voluntary basis. We are proceeding with a phased approach to reopening our other offices as public health conditions improve and staff seek alternatives to working from home.
What exactly do we mean by “the Work from Anywhere economy?”
We define the Work from Anywhere economy as one in which most office workers have workplace choices. In the Work from Anywhere economy, the central office remains essential, but the choice to work at least part time from home, a coworking space, or new workplaces fashioned out of retail storefronts, hotels, and residential complexes is one that is real. Work from Anywhere does not represent the death of the office, but rather the rise of the diversified workplace.
The difference between Work from Home and Work from Anywhere is primarily the real estate footprint that employers purchase. Prior to the pandemic, Gensler’s 2019 Workplace Survey reported that 45% of US workers had a choice of workspaces within their offices; workplaces that offered variety and choice in work settings had a higher effectiveness and experience score. The change happening now is that the choice of whether to do heads-down work in the office lounge or at an assigned desk has expanded to include a home office, a co-working space or business lounge, a hotel on the way to a client meeting, or a coffee shop down the street.
In a series of articles, beginning with this one, we will explore the impacts this transition will have on people, companies, communities, and cities.
We begin by looking at the supply and demand characteristics of the transition. Thirty years ago, an explosion of coffee shops provided initial supply. Following the Great Recession, businesses of all sizes and industries explored the potential of coworking spaces and flex office models like Convene. By late 2019, the largest tenants in London, New York, and Chicago were coworking entities. Innovative office developers like Hines, Hudson Pacific Properties, Jamestown, RXR, and Tishman Speyer began to compete in “amenities wars” within office developments; four fifths of employers perceived amenities as “integral” to the employee experience. Now Marriott is rebranding some of its most popular travel destinations as glorified business centers – a tack being taken by others from DC to LA. The co-living company Common recently launched a competition seeking proposals from cities and developers for remote work hubs. We expect more such experiments to emerge.
On the demand side, employee interest in the Work from Anywhere model appears high: homeowners are building mini office buildings in their backyards, and stocks for home improvement companies are soaring. Employer demand is more complicated. Take the tech sector – already prone to remote work. Late last month, Pinterest paid a $90M penalty to renege on a long-term lease commitment in San Francisco in favor of a “more distributed workforce.” Meanwhile, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings disparaged remote work as a “pure negative” and insisted that the company would bring workers back into the office as soon as a vaccine was available.
Likewise, while 56% of hiring managers surveyed by Upwork said the shift to remote work had gone better than expected, J.P. Morgan Chase reported that productivity slipped among those working from home. J.P. Morgan and others have observed that certain aspects of white-collar work have proved challenging to adapt to a virtual setting, including onboarding, training, socializing, and unstructured collaboration. Employer demand will not be uniform; it will be informed by internal culture, worker-management relationships, the extent of supply-side changes, and successes and failures across industries, all of which will take time to manifest.
Nonetheless, the disruption in the geography of work is already undermining the tax base of cities, upending mobility patterns, and transforming demand for all manner of urban real estate. In New York City, nearly 10% of the city’s 2019 tax revenue was derived from what are now mostly empty office buildings; as of mid-September, weekday subway ridership is down by more than 70% compared to last year. As we explored in an earlier analysis, not all cities are the same: knowledge hubs like Washington DC, where 53% of workers are able to work remotely, will face very different challenges in the Work from Anywhere economy than tourism hotspots like New Orleans, where less than 40% of workers can telework.
In the coming months, HR&A, in partnership with you, our readers and collaborators, will examine the following questions:
- How should office owners and developers respond to the Work from Anywhere economy? What services and amenities should landlords provide to stay competitive? What data will be needed to communicate the value of the physical office to tenants? How can residential, retail, and hospitality developers best position themselves to compete?
- Which cities will benefit, and which are at risk of being left behind? What will dispersed work do to municipal finances, housing markets, commuting patterns, and neighborhood services? What uses will shrink and which will grow? How will the street experience change? What investments in physical or digital infrastructure should cities make? What are the implications for central city and suburban labor markets?
- How can we continue to support a Just and Resilient Recovery in a Work from Anywhere economy? How will the erosion of the traditional office model impact the most vulnerable, including low-income households, communities of color, and undocumented immigrants? How should the labor force be reskilled to adapt – notably including the estimated 22 million workers in office support functions? How might redistributions of wealth within regions aid efforts to reduce inequality rather than continue to exacerbate it?
The promise of cities is anchored in density and diversity of people and experiences. Over the coming months, we look forward to exploring how urbanists in government, private industry, and nonprofits can work together to ensure our cities continue to thrive in a Work from Anywhere economy. If you have ideas or experiences to share, please get in touch with Kate Wittels and Danny Fuchs to carry on the conversation.