AMERICA IS DOTTED with remnants of economies of the past. Think gold rush towns, factory cities, rail towns, and coal towns, to name a few. All served their purpose, and either evolved into something else, or slowly collapsed.
Now, the durability of remote and hybrid work poses an increasingly grave threat to Boston and other downtown areas. With COVID infection rates plummeting and more and more offices open, remote workers could come back now if they wanted to. But surveys consistently show a large swath of remote workers are just not interested in returning, particularly not full time. A new Pew survey finds the majority (59 percent) of workers who say their jobs can be done remotely are working from home most or all of the time.
Downtown economies are built around massive daily inflows of workers. That flow slowed dramatically when COVID began, and remains far below pre-pandemic levels. Boston will need to find another way to fill vast empty spaces in the hulking monuments to an economy that no longer exists.
It’s not just surveys that highlight the risk. We also have real world experience to point to. Remote workers didn’t come flooding back to Boston at any of the moments when they could have. They didn’t return in that blissful period after the vaccine rolled out but before the Delta variant hit. They haven’t come back as Omicron has faded, or not in large numbers anyway.
More troubling still are the reasons remote workers give for not wanting to come in full time. It was one thing when fear of the virus was the main barrier. In the early days of the pandemic, many offices were closed as a precaution, and workers with the choice to stay home largely did so.
Now, most remote workers (61 percent) are staying out because they choose to, not because their office is closed or unavailable (38 percent), according to the Pew Survey. A tracking poll from Morning Consult shows the last time more people felt uncomfortable in the office than comfortable was February 2021, just as COVID vaccines were becoming widely available.
Even though their offices are largely open and they are comfortable going there, remote workers are still not returning. Among these workers who stay home by choice, the Pew survey found three quarters (76 percent) say a preference for home work is a major reason they continue to do so. This percentage has increased since 2020, as workers gained more remote work experience.
This preference developed very early on in the pandemic and increased as time went on. Our surveys in Massachusetts found 60-70 percent of the workforce expressing a preference for permanent remote work at least a few days a week even in 2020. Among the Kendall Square tech workers, the figure rose to 78 percent as of August 2020. Far from tiring of remote work as the pandemic wore on, more and more workers have grown to prefer it.
Companies have also adjusted their plans and expectations. The heady early days of planning a sweeping reopening are gone. Multiple employer surveys in Massachusetts have shown the vast majority plan to offer remote and hybrid work as a permanent option.
Put this all together, and even as case counts bottom out and other in-person activities roar back to life, offices remain eerily quiet. The Boston Globe reports Downtown Crossing foot traffic still at a third of pre-pandemic levels. MBTA ridership hovers around half what it was 2 years ago. Even these figures don’t tell the story. Foot traffic figures are boosted by tourists and students. MBTA ridership includes the same groups as well as essential workers and others who cannot not work remotely.
Perhaps the best (and most alarming) read on the impact of remote work comes from actual presence at the office. As the Globe reports, “The number of people actually going into the office is down even more, roughly one-seventh of what it was in the Before Times, based on information from building security firm Kastle Systems.”
Even the articles that describe people returning to the office are mostly talking about coming in at most a few days a week rather than full time. Surveys consistently show very few workers with a choice will come in every day. Our Kendall Square survey pegged the figure in the single digits, as did a repeat survey in August 2021.
It all adds up to one thing. There’s no going back to normal, mainly because it’s not normal anymore. The normal of 2020 may as well have been 1920 or 1820, for the chances of returning to it now. Normal for 2022 is where large swaths of the workforce have the choice to work remotely and are taking it. Normal now includes 8 or 10 less hours of commuting each week, hours workers can instead devote to spouses, children, hobbies, or well … anything.
After two years on Zoom, coming into the office now requires an out-of-the-ordinary level of effort just to start the workday. For many people, commuting requires an extra and unpaid hour or two a day to travel to and from the office. It brings the risk of major delays in either direction, a very common occurrence on Boston’s worst-in-the-nation roads, and decrepit transit system.
That’s where the existential risks to downtowns come into focus. Every day an individual worker stays remote means 1 less possible work lunch, 1 less potential attendee at an after-work event, less drinks with coworkers or clients at downtown bars, less dry cleaning downtown, fewer haircuts…just less everything. Put another way, 1 day out of a 5 day work week is a 20 percent loss of downtown time for that individual. And that’s just the workers who come in at all and who work at companies that maintain their office presence.
It also compounds on itself. As fewer people come downtown, there are fewer reasons to come downtown. With most of the workday at home, setting up meetings and events gets harder. Getting people to travel in just for a lunch event? Forget it. A power breakfast? Get serious.
Government officials from Mayor Michelle Wu to President Biden are feeling the urgency. Biden urged a return as a part of his State of the Union address last week. Mayor Eric Adams of New York City famously urged a return to the office, saying, “You can’t stay home in your pajamas all day!”
Whether long term-remote work is good or bad for productivity, profits, and office culture is for others to debate and perhaps for time to tell. What matters for now is that workers think a considerable amount of remote work is good for them. It’s very clear they can, in fact, stay home in their pajamas all day, no matter what Adams might wish.
Companies can decide to enforce five days in person if they choose to. But in doing so, they will be choosing from a much smaller labor pool than if they allow what employees now expect. Any changes from here are a disruption to what is now normal for employees with two years of remote work under their belts. They have built new lives around what is now normal. Many workers won’t return for full time work because that’s not a normal thing for them anymore.
As workers and companies settle into the new normal, the shadows across downtown are lengthening. Maybe this time we’ll beat the sunset of obsolescence, thinking of new and ingenious solutions to the coming office space crisis. Lab space, housing, event space, and other uses all have their proponents. Recognizing the threat and the need for rethinking is a first step. Just wishing for a return to the past or berating remote workers won’t change the fate of places built for times gone by.
Steve Koczela is the president of the MassINC Polling Group, a subsidiary of MassINC, the parent company of CommonWealth.