Side Effects (Warning: Non-2A Rant Ahead)

I’ve been thinking a lot about side effects lately. You know, when you try to fix one thing and other unintentional things happen, some of which are as bad or even worse than what the original thing you were trying to fix. We mostly associate the term with health care and medications, but it also happens in day-to-day business, and for today’s rant, the tech worker vs. downtown.

Whatever the underlying purposes of the “Great Reset” brought into play by the COVID pandemic shutdowns, the side effects for the business world have been dramatic and devastating. During the two-plus years of two-weeks-to-flatten-the-curve, state and local governments grabbed unprecedented control over private businesses, and private individual’s, day-to-day lives, all in the name of public good. 

Thousands and thousands of businesses were closed, many never to reopen. Larger businesses were deemed “essential” and allowed to stay open with heavy modifications to their business practices and even what they could sell.

Companies whose employees were mostly technology workers sent their teams home to work, even if their home environment wasn’t suitable for work. But they persevered, many setting up their ‘offices’ on kitchen tables and bedrooms, battling for space with partners and children, now doing Zoom school at home, did the same thing. Some struggled, but most did well, and overall productivity wasn’t negatively impacted. As time wore on, many companies decided they could do without having their employees in the office and said employees could expect to work from home forever. Employees scattered across the country and across the world to find a better and less expensive work/home life. When businesses were granted permission to reopen, most of the employees did not come back to the office. 

This change in work also prompted a change in pay. In big national/multi-national corporations’ location-based salary was, and still is, standard practice. Human resources would go through absurd mental gymnastics to explain how you in a small city making $50,000 less than someone doing the exact same job in a bigger city was a good thing for you. Value-based salaries do away with that. You are paid the same rate no matter where you are.  

Should it really matter if you live and work in Ottumwa, Iowa instead of New York City? Not really, and remote/work-from-wherever broke that mold. It also opened the talent pool to the entire connected world vs. just the people who are willing and able to work in a densely populated metropolitan area. 

But then those pesky side effects started kicking in. Big city downtowns turned into big city ghost towns. Businesses that relied on the office workers that had not already shut down, began to close shop. But it’s not just the downtown stores that were impacted, it’s everything the office worked touched in relation to going to work. Childcare services, bridge, bus, rail and taxi fees, parking and fine revenue, gasoline tax, restaurants, bars, food services, clothing, entertainment, and recreation venues – everything the tech workers touched throughout their day was negatively impacted and downtowns everywhere declined. If downtowns were to survive, the tech workers had to be brought back. 

Of course, this wasn’t the only thing contributing to the downtown decline. Progressive, pro-crime/anti-law enforcement polices such as defunding the police, decriminalization of illegal acts, failure to arrest and prosecute offenders, no-bail laws, releasing previously incarcerated inmates and closing prisons, have all lead to the lawless, violent free-for-all found in many big cities now. Why would office workers, tourists or conventions want to go to a city where they have step over human urine and feces, drugs, needles and trash, risk being robbed and assaulted, just to walk down the street? 

Enter the campaign to get workers back in the office. From CEOs to sycophant business writers, the news and social media platforms have been inundated with articles on how in-office/in-person work is ESSENTIAL to business success and remote workers are nowhere near as productive as the in-office workers. Everything from corporate visibility to promotion potential would be impacted, so getting workers back in the buildings was deemed critical. Some even called it unfair/unethical to allow technology workers to work from home when manufacturing, production and other jobs had to be performed on company property. Yes, there are some functions that must be done on company premises. But most tech work is location independent. 

Workers who were previously told they could work from anywhere forever are now being forced to return to the office or find another job, even as the CEOs openly admit there is no evidence that in-office work is more productive than remote work. Sadly, all lessons learned, and productivity achieved under forced adverse conditions meant nothing. Still, they preach about the “surge in energy and collaboration” by being back on campus! 

You’d also think enticing your employees back to the office would follow a carrot and stick model. First offering incentives to work in the office, the carrot, then punishing those who don’t comply, the stick. Unfortunately, there has been no carrot. The famous tech worker perks like free or low-cost meals, on-site dry cleaning, health care, childcare and entertainment have been eliminated in cost cutting measures. The only thing offered now is the stick, being terminated if you don’t come into the office x days per week. Even if you work remotely for part of the week, the forced return to the office keeps you locked into the metropolitan area where you are assigned, helping to save downtown.

At first, I speculated this was just the old management style of having to keep your eyes on the underlings to see what they are doing every minute of the day, but then there are the two words nobody is talking about, real estate.

Companies, especially the bigger ones, have BILLIONS and BILLIONS of dollars invested in their real estate portfolio. Class A buildings with the company name in huge lighted letters on the top is a measure of success. The more visibility, the more you have succeeded. The more you spend on your gigantic offices, the more success you have achieved, and everyone should do business with you. Apple’s new headquarters building alone is over 1.2 million square feet to house 12,000 employees and cost $5 billion to build. It’s no surprise that Apple is leading the way when it comes to forcing their employees back into the office.

Shedding excess office space is one option, but with the current inflationary boom and more companies reducing space than acquiring it, nobody is subletting or buying. The once in demand, big city downtown business districts are now showing record high, and increasing, vacancies. San Francisco’s vacancy rate as of the second quarter of 2023 was at nearly 32%,  

Should it be the technology office worker’s responsibly to save the downtown economy? Hell no! Whatever the actual goals behind the COVID pandemic shutdowns and the Great Reset were, the side effects of changing the way business’s function are here to stay. Legacy companies with gargantuan real estate portfolios can either adapt to the changing times or lose out on the top talent who understand they can now work for anyone in the world, from anywhere in the world. 

Adapt or get left behind. 


Rant over. 

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