Wither Offices in 2022?

As I’m typing this out in June of 2022, it’s been 2.5 years since the original COVID-19 virus strain was first found in humans—though it certainly has felt longer than 30 months. The US first took major action in March of 2020, shutting down travel and offices and schools within the span of a couple of weeks. Yet, in less than a year, we’d authorize an effective vaccine and begin a national vaccination campaign, starting with the most vulnerable populations. That seemed to be going well, until a more virulent strain in Omnicron took over the country through the winter of 2021. Now that we’re more than 2 years into this pandemic, COVID has shown this uncanny, stubborn ability to deny extended returns to normalcy, materializing spikes in cases just as it seems like we’re able to move on.

Despite leading the world in both cumulative cases and deaths, the US is well-positioned to handle COVID-19 in 2022—from mRNA vaccines to drug treatments, we have developed many of the necessary tools to battle the virus. This, in a way, reflects the quintessential American response to a major crisis: by leaning on scientific breakthroughs to pull us through, in lieu of simpler social solutions like masking and social distancing1. In contrast, the zero-COVID policy pursued by the Chinese government is a purist interpretation of the social strategy, and while that had contained the COVID outbreak in the beginning, its continued implementation has proven to be socially and economically disruptive. In 2022, China feels like it’s undergoing the same hallowing experience as the US two years prior.

That’s not to say that we’ve returned to business-as-usual here either. This article paints a pretty bleak picture:

Downtown S.F. on the brink: It’s worse than it looks

San Francisco is hardly unique in seeing its downtown area stay at a fraction of its pre-pandemic activity levels. Granted, much of this was predicted when workers initially shifted to working from home and restaurants started to reduce their hours, but this new dynamic has gone on now for long enough that the way things worked, before COVID-19, is becoming an increasingly distant memory.

On returning commercial downtown districts to their previous levels of vibrancy, the underlying variable is still whether workers will return to offices. Given employees’ newfound appreciation for workplace flexibility along with uncertain progress in the pandemic, companies have found it challenging to stick with their return-to-office plans. Some companies in tech—Twitter, Square/Block, AirBnb—moved to eliminate the ambiguity and set company policies for permanently working from home, but they’re notable for being exceptions.

Will we return to the same scale of centralized commercial districts? Perhaps downtowns go back to same level of occupancy and commercial activity as before, but that’s pretty much the best case scenario; it’s more probable that the some of this shift stays permanent, that offices and restaurants and stores downsize to some degree. In fact, if commercial real estate owners and city governments get tired of waiting while they lose out on rent and taxes, they may well invoke policy and zoning changes to make better use of the vacancies.

  1. This resistance was particularly striking in the early days, when there were so many countries that kept COVID under control via social measures while the US wallowed in death and despair.

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