How the pandemic killed the five-day office workweek

Employees are returning to their offices in the United States, but as old routines like long commutes, train rides and face-to-face meetings are revived, one thing will never be the same: the workweek of five days.

Few office workers will be chained to their desks now that the pandemic has made telecommuting the norm for white-collar workers. New York Governor Kathy Hochul acknowledged the impact of the historic change, saying earlier this month that “it may never be a five-day week again.”

“It can be four days with flexibility. It can be three and a half days,” she added.

Echoing this idea, New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently hinted at the end of the usual work week where employees dutifully go to the office every day.

“We are entering a new era of work and what New York will look like,” he said.

Get workers out of their pajamas

In 2019, before the pandemic, New York’s office sector employed 1.6 million people, according to a report by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. But many office workers switched to remote work in March 2020, when COVID-19 turned the city into the coronavirus capital of the world.

At the time, leading architecture and design firms were planning a return to work that would include one-way traffic facilitated by directional arrows in the officeslimited elevator capacity, open windows and lots of plexiglass.

But few of those design concepts stuck. Instead, offices are becoming less siled and less office-like in order to attract employees. Many workers say they would rather skip their commutes, which have become more expensive due to rising gas pricesunless there’s some kind of perk – like a free lunch or a yoga class – waiting for them at the office as an added incentive.

Amenities like gyms and high-end restaurants in buildings — not enclosed cubicles — get workers out of their pajamas, off their couches, and into offices.

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Office availability rates have increased during the pandemic as companies have reduced their real estate footprint and freed up space. According to CBRE, a commercial real estate firm, rental activity for high-end office space in Manhattan has picked up faster than the overall rate.

“We are seeing that higher quality office space is actually recovering faster than the rest of the market, and the reason for that is that tenants who are transacting are showing a desire to move into that type of space,” said said Julie Whelan, a future labor expert at CBRE.

Business districts suffer

The phenomenon of working from home has also led to a reorganization of the places of activity. At the height of COVID-19, “It felt like a tale of two cities,” Matt Chmielecki, senior vice president of CBRE’s retail services group, told CBS MoneyWatch. “Residential markets were bustling with foot traffic, restaurants spilled onto the sidewalks, and downtown looked like a ghost town.”

Lunchtime crowds in once-bustling business districts have thinned out as professionals have turned to working from home. Retailers in residential neighborhoods, meanwhile, have been aided by homebound workers.

“People who would be at work all day are at home, and it’s easier to shop and eat,” Chmielecki said.

It’s unclear whether business districts across the country will ever be as crowded as they once were during the work week.

“You have changing dynamics in New York, San Francisco, Chicago — areas with vibrant central business districts,” said Peter Braus, managing partner of Lee & Associates, a commercial real estate firm in New York. “They now see a lot more activity in [residential] neighborhoods, and this translates to the national level. »

More and more workers are asking for flexibility

Financial services companies have generally been the most reluctant to give workers more flexibility to work from a location of their choice, arguing that face-to-face interaction is imperative both for individuals’ professional development and to close commercial agreements with customers.

Yet even the toughest companies on Wall Street have had to adapt to changing employee expectations.

“Even they apparently indicated that working from home is okay one day a week,” Braus said. “When you translate that into occupancy and retail sales, even letting people stay home one day a week, that’s a 20% impact on sales, wholesale.”

The death of the five-day office workweek is largely due to workers who have seen an improvement in their work-life balance while working remotely and who are becoming increasingly demanding of their employers.

“Talent is driving the agenda, no doubt. There was some workweek flexibility before COVID, but it wasn’t largely the case that people were working remotely one day a week – at unless they’re on a business trip,” said Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, an influential nonprofit advocacy group.

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Many employers have decided to adopt a hybrid working model, with employees splitting their weeks between working in the office and working remotely. Other companies have decided to go completely remote.

Before the pandemic, in New York, less than 4% of jobs were completely remote, according to the Partnership for New York City. Today, nearly 11% of job postings are for fully remote roles.

“Increasingly, when people, especially women, are hired, they ask about the flexibility of the workweek. They have found that being able to work from home has given them time with their family that ‘they really appreciate it, and that’s especially true of those on long commutes,’ Wylde said.

This is a particular problem in New York, where on average, workers commute 42 minutes each way. “So people literally save almost two hours out of their day if they don’t have to make that daily commute. We all know that time is the most precious commodity we have,” Wylde said. “I think most employers are sensitive to the needs of employees.”

Offering flexibility has also become key to employers’ recruiting efforts, according to Braus of Lee & Associates.

“Employers are faced with this dynamic where if I tell a potential recruit they’re supposed to be in four to five days a week, that in itself might deter them from working at my company,” he said. “If you are looking for a new office space, it must be the coolest, newest and best office space around, otherwise there will be a real problem recruiting future employees.”

Jose C. Birney