Save The Office: Costs And Spatial Well-Being in the Work-From-Home Economy

MAKING SENSE OF 2020 WASN’T ALWAYS FUN FROM A PROFESSIONAL STANDPOINT. Many Americans weren’t ready for the tectonic shift to work-from-home. In spite of some hiccups– an attempted insurrection by fascists at the US Capitol that left five dead- we are starting to see some lights at the end of the tunnel. We’ve got a new presidential administration! It might even be OK! Or, at least, it’ll be less awful than the last one! There are multiple vaccines to the novel coronavirus that has killed nearly 500,000 Americans. And, eventually, we’ll be back to working in real places. …right? Won’t we?! (…guys?!) A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed a twenty-something designer– we’ll call her Andrea- who told me about her life in the work-from-home economy, and her company’s recent decision to do away with in-person work, well, indefinitely.

The home office– somewhat cramped in comparison to the wide open real estate of a huge desk in a design firm.
Settling Into Routine 

Andrea lives in a small city in the Midatlantic United States. She’s close enough to home– about a twenty minute drive- but far enough away to have her own space. She shares a downtown apartment in a historic, dense, walkable neighborhood. She’s been working for her current firm, an agency that does advertising and public relations for a variety of companies principally in the home furnishings industry, for a few years now. The firm employs around a dozen staff, most of whom have been working from home since March 2020. One of the senior staff had contracted COVID when local numbers were virtually zero– an early adopter, she says, wryly- and this was an impetus to start work-from-home well before state lockdowns had been enacted.

“It became real for us very quickly,” she says.

So, much of 2020 was spent holed up in her apartment with her roommate, who had also started working from home. But the idea of transitioning the entire office space into her home wasn’t really feasible.

“There’s not a whole lot of room for me to take this kind of bulky designer setup and bring it into my apartment,” she says. However, she was able to go into the office sometimes. She chose her apartment, she says, based on the fact that she can walk to work.

“I decided to live very close to the office very purposefully,” she says. “If no one else is going to be in the office, I’m going to operate in it as though it were my home. All of the doors will be locked, mail will be diverted, et cetera.”

This worked for most of 2020.

But recently, the firm sent out an announcement that staff would be working from home– indefinitely. They had not renewed their lease on their downtown office space.

In a private social media post, Andrea wrote:

I’m sure that this office space only being used periodically by 1–2 people […] throughout 2020 was starting to not make a lot of financial sense, but I just wish there had been more/any conversation had or alternatives pitched […] on a macro level, I have concerns that a move towards remote-only for certain types of work may create a bias towards wealthier employees who have a larger space or own a home. On the other hand, though, I do see how full-remote eliminates transportation costs & commute time, & creates opportunity for someone to work anywhere from anywhere. The line between the two scenarios seems pretty fuzzy, at least to me.

Navigating that fuzzy line between the two is a question of efficiency, certainly. But it’s also pretty clearly a question of equity and accessibility. Moreover: is it fair to workers to do this without getting their input? Is it utterly necessary as a cost-cutting measure? Or, is this just going to be completely case-by-case? Certainly, it’ll be different for small businesses than for huge ones. It’ll also be different for companies that haven’t taken an economic hit versus those that have.

Big Picture: The Work-From-Home Economy, At Large

The pandemic has effected a tectonic shift in the geospatial characteristics of American employment. The morning commute, a long mainstay of American late capitalism, has all but vanished in many markets. This may eventually go back to normal, but not in the near term. Around 42% of Americans are currently working from home, and this number will remain high throughout 2021. The rollout of vaccines against the coronavirus has been so slow and bungled– by the since-departed presidential administration (currently under investigation for maybe having fomented a violent insurrection?)- that imagining any semblance of herd immunity this year seems nearly impossible.

Many companies I’ve spoken with in recent weeks have suggested a mid-2021 date as far as when they expect to be vaguely resuming some sort of normal workplace setup. But even with the vaccine rollouts, the pandemic numbers appeared to be worsening well into January, so this seems dubious.

Oh, and the actual unemployment rate? Well, no one really knows. Somewhere between 10% and 18%.

Andrea enjoys the ability to work from various surfaces, whether a charming midcentury desk, a futon (pictured here), or her kitchen table. But is it really a “standing desk” if it’s just putting your MacBook on top of a box on top of a table?
Downtown Main Street Is The Same As Suburban Office Park Drive… Kinda

As the stock market continues its inexorable climb, an onlooker may be left to wonder whether capital markets have even noticed. The stock market certainly hasn’t. This is problematic as, at some level, Andrea’s office space in downtown Anytown, USA makes use of the same capital systems that lend to build suburban office parks. Commercial loans get packaged, securitized, and sold off, etc. Need a loan? Want to sign a lease? At some level, abstracted, all of that money comes from and goes to the same places.

And what places they are. Some figures have vacancy rates in Midtown Manhattan’s commercial market, for example, in the double digits. That doesn’t mean “offices where people aren’t coming in to work for awhile,” it means “unleased space.” While housing remains scarce in urban markets, commercial real estate is reeling. This squeezes anyone managing such property or lending to develop or renovate it. And this, in turn, places enormous pressure on capital markets. We haven’t heard much about this because the Federal Reserve has acted as a backstop. But no amount of PPP loans– or whatever stimulus measure- will stop this from affecting the bottom line of especially small businesses.

Enlisting Workplace Support, Or Not?

Unrelated to the work-from-home transition question, Andrea called the company’s outside IT contractor with a question, and mentioned the switch. He said he had no idea about the planned move to permanent work-from-home. This, she said, seemed to be a pretty big thing to overlook on the part of management. Their work had moved from including a lot of print media to being mostly digital. Everything housed internally would have to be now moved to the cloud. This is doable, certainly, but it is, to understate things, a nonzero budget consideraton.

“I was like, okay, so the people can work from home, but where will the servers live? We have all of this stuff physically in our office right now. And they didn’t think to ask the IT guy about it before making the decision?”

There’s no right answer here. One must empathize with so many companies that have gotten screwed into leasing massive tracts of real estate for long-term leases, only to not be able to use them. Of course, one need not perhaps empathize with richly-capitalized companies that have sprawled their workforces out across faceless, suburban campuses without thinking about what an alternative might look like. You know, given that we’ve had decades of experience to correct the terrible mistakes of the sprawl era.

Toward a more flexible workplace

The jury is still out as to whether workers are happier working from home overall as a comparison to working in an office. No one misses the morning commute. But there’s oodles of evidence to support the idea that workers benefit enormously from flexible work arrangements that allow them to work from home if they want to. One of my former colleagues at Southwest Solutions back in the day sang the praises of our director because, she said, he was the only person who was going to allow her to work flexible hours when she had to pick up her kid from school as a single mother, etc. This is a godsend to single parents. But isn’t this the kind of thing workplaces need in general?

A number of places are slow to catch on– not necessarily Andrea’s employers, who have at least been nominally supportive in the process of transition.

“They won’t even pay for our desks,” a legal aid attorney recently complained to me.

It is doubtful that the work-from-home economy is a permanent thing, but it’s one that should provide us with some good lessons in thinking about work-life balance as well as this oft-overlooked spatial component of the workplace– and what we can do to set up equitable, flexible working environments that allow us to be productive, happy, healthy, and still allows businesses to grow.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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