I was invited to speak at the Young, Smart and Local conference this week in Greensboro, NC and found talent recruitment and retention professionals extremely engaged in knowing what the future of downtown might be. Ian Anderson (Senior Director of Research and Analysis at CBRE) and I shared our thoughts during the panel So What Will Happen to Downtown? moderated by Chris Chung (CEO of the State Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina). The discussion allowed for a combination of reflection and forecast. When asked about the silver linings associated with the pandemic – if anything could be considered a silver lining – I was struck by how quickly we stopped discussing good progress. I stressed that during the pandemic, local governments quickly became more adaptable, flexible, and perhaps, more entrepreneurial in their thinking. Partnerships between public, private and civic organizations became increasingly valuable. We found new and expanded ways of utilizing public space. Virtual or hybrid work was proven to be not only possible but, for some businesses and positions, very productive. And, of course, the pandemic clearly illustrated the inequities that exist in our communities. All these outcomes help improve our city building, and I hope we continue to leverage them in the future.
While preparing for the panel and developing thoughts for the future of office, some interesting work from the Des Moines Partnership proved valuable. Based on expectations for some level of hybrid office work, space and place will evolve and present opportunities for IDA members in the future. With community health needs growing, offices will evolve to include a new balance of flexible spaces to continue providing for collaboration and more for dedicated offices or workstations to provide for health and safety. Where office space per capita has been decreasing over recent decades, I expect the square foot per person will increase in the future.
Much will be driven by the aim to meet the needs of the current and future knowledge worker, which was examined more specifically in the Des Moines study. Working from home for many knowledge workers proved most effective and efficient when looking at the work that needs to be accomplished. However, the office also needs to provide professional socialization, mentoring, collaboration and – for earlier career professionals – access to senior leadership. This leads to new and more contemporary engagement strategies that differ from traditional team meetings. It means providing amenities and experiences not always available at home, including higher-speed internet and access to technology. For IDA members, it means the third places will be increasingly important. The coffee shops, outdoor spaces, parks and community collaboration spaces, including incubators or accelerators, will be needed.
We are all poised to support the regeneration of our local districts and to strive toward more inclusive city building. I’m often asked what I think the future of office will be. The truth is that no one perspective is correct, and every market will differ. What is reasonable, and what is becoming generally accepted, is that a hundred percent return to the way it was before the pandemic is unlikely. Further, experts like Ian Anderson raise the concern that the office real estate market will continue to see upheaval for the foreseeable future. No matter what your final percent return to office prediction may be, I hope we look directly at the percent reduction as an opportunity and consider how adaptive utilization of underutilized spaces can best benefit our districts. The overarching silver lining of the pandemic may prove to be the opportunity to reshape underutilized spaces and places to address the community challenges and gaps that existed before the pandemic – a chance to truly build complete communities for all.