What’s a City Without the Office?

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S1: This is a this is one of the most iconic places in Manhattan. I would have to say we’ve been here for so many years. Anybody who’s anybody got a haircut and ask the players, you know, this is Mike Savvy Yellow, known to all as Big Mike.

S2: He’s the manager at Astor Hair, a boisterous basement barbershop that has been cutting New Yorkers hair for decades, including mine and Mayor Bill de Blasio s people. Mike says the mayor was here two weeks ago. His haircut cost 20 bucks.

S1: I’ve been here 40 years. And since we’ve been here, I met people who were nobody. They became stars. I mean, like David Bowie got his first haircut here when Andy Warhol guys first Erica here. And then there was new kids on a block used to come here.

S3: I came to talk to Big Mike because I wanted to peek at how New York City, once the country’s covered 19 epicenter, was reopening. He had set up a desk on the sidewalk. He had a point and shoot the monitor and a yellow legal pad for contact tracing phone number and a walkie talkie to communicate with the inside of the shop. Coming down inside the place is quieter than usual, and not just because clients are waiting upstairs.

S1: First day was last Monday. It was crazy. We were like 30, 40 people. I went all time. Second day was busy. Then it slowed down after that. We’re probably one fourth of our capacity right now for this week.

S2: Astro hair, like many businesses in New York, has the green light to open. But without one key part of their clientele, Manhattan office workers. It’s been hard to get back up to speed.

S4: That’s that’s the main main reason why we’re slow. I mean, we have a lot of customers that working in office buildings, a lot of people on Wall Street. We have a lot of customers from Midtown that work in offices that will come those people out in because they’re not coming to work. So that’s that’s that’s more than half our business right there.

S3: I’m Henry Gabbar, staff writer at Slate. For much of my career, I’ve written about cities, about housing and transportation and immigration and urban development. Then the corona virus happened and the places I thought I knew were instantly transformed since the start of the pandemic. I’ve been tracking this upheaval and asking questions about what American cities will look like one, five, 10 years from now.

S2: I’m sure you’ve heard someone say that Koven 19 could mean the end of the city. This is not the first time that people have made that prediction. Virtually every technology from the telephone to the automobile to the Internet has threatened to pull cities apart.

S5: But even if the pandemic is unlikely to kill off the city for good. Clearly American cities are not going to be the same. What I found in my visit to ask her hair is that even in neighborhoods that don’t feel like they’re full of officers, nothing’s getting back to normal until offices open again. If offices open again since March. Manhattan’s trademark. Nine to five pulse when the population doubles during the day and has at night has gone silent. White collar work has dissolved into home offices across the country, and some executives, like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman, have said that the status quo right now is working just fine. Here’s Gorman.

S6: Clearly, you know, we’ve figured out how to operate with much less real estate that, you know, number one, right off the bat. Can I see a future where part of every week, suddenly part of every month for a lot of our employees will be at home? Absolutely.

S7: For the next six Fridays, I’ll be sitting in for Lizzie O’Leary and reporting on the future of the city during and after covered 19 on today’s show. What happens to the corporate skyscraper now when this is finally over? Will companies even want an office? And can Citi survive without them? This is what next TBD. Stick around.

S2: I’ve looked at a bunch of your designs, and I feel like the bumping into each other is actually kind of the whole thing.

S8: It’s the whole idea.

S2: Do something. Do you feel like you’re now like working against your own philosophy of what a novice is supposed to look like?

S8: I bet.

S2: This is John Capobianco, a principal at Interior Architects, which developed offices for blue chip clients like Uber and linked in John’s designs are full of houseplants and eye catching light fixtures and modernist sofas. This is not Dunder Mifflin. We’re talking about more than anything. They’re open, full of shared spaces and surfaces. So I wanted to ask who in their right mind would want to go back to such an office right now?

S8: Turns out the answer was John himself, then our office for eliminating our China temporarily. And if you want a glass, you bring it in yourself and use your own and you take it home at night.

S2: You’ve mentioned that you guys feel like you’re actually working really well from home. I’m wondering if you feel some pressure as someone who is working on behalf of clients to make their offices covered, prove to go back into your own office and say, well, look, we’re doing it. So so can you.

S8: There is a bit of pressure there. You know, we’re doing this for a living. So we need to be on the forefront of the return.

S2: I’m wondering what then your office is going to look like when you come back. What will be the changes that you’ll see as people come back into the office?

S8: So in our office, the big change is that of an office. I think we have about 85 desks and about 75 employees in our New York office. The big change is that there’s only going to be 28 to 30 people in at any one time. That’s typically what we’re suggesting, is that you go to the office for a few purposes. One, that is 10, collaboration, socialization. The second would be to do things in the office that you can do at home, such as use our resource library, etc..

S2: Right. So how are you all going to coordinate to make sure that you don’t go over that 30 person or roughly 30 percent capacity limit that you’ve set for yourselves? Is there going to be some sort of sign up sheet when it’s full? Sorry, no more no more people in the office today.

S8: That’s exactly it. It really is the first 30 people that hit the sign up sheets get into the office. So we have a population of around 75 people. And so we’re dividing that into two shifts. So we have a team A, Team B team will be in on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and then alternating B will be on Tuesday and Thursday and Friday the following week.

S2: So if Team A and Team B want to meet, they better do it in the park.

S8: Yes. Well, we are actually specifically assigning teammates to actual functional teams. So everybody in Team Day will be related to each other.

S9: This isn’t just an easy way to keep the office from getting crowded. It also helps with contact tracing. You can keep half your team safe from the other half. The problem is what we know about the corona virus is still in flux. At the beginning, the guidance from the W and the CDC was that the virus spread mainly through surfaces, not actually the biggest risk, as it turns out. Then elevators and public transit were thought to be dangerous. But in countries that have reopened, they don’t seem to be generating infections. So John is wrapping everything in plastic. He’s only making changes. He can be sure about hygiene stations are in closely spaced chairs. They’re out. Fresh air that’s in. Special machines out.

S2: I know you guys work in this older building down on Broadway. Yes. Do you have Windows? Can you open windows? I assume that’s not something that many of your clients have the privilege of doing.

S8: No, unfortunately not. Especially not in the New York market. I think that’s a much more familiar to the folks on the West Coast and some more modern office buildings are windows do not open despite being an older building. But what we are doing is essentially adjusting our balance of recycled air versus outdoor air. The maximum. So are mechanical systems will be running with like 90 percent outdoor air, which may affect temperature a bit within the office and the humidity levels. But actually a higher humidity level is better.

S2: While John is busy thinking about how to make his office safe right now, he’s also dealing with a larger question. If people are doing just fine working from home, why go in at all even when the pandemic subsides? In other words, John is thinking about how to adapt offices not just to the corona virus, but to remote work, which might be here to stay.

S8: How do we attract workers to come in when it’s optional to come in? Right. So how do we create a center of community or sort of the hive that everybody returns back to? I could imagine a landscape based on activity. You know, with the central core being sort of community areas, some places for people to get together and, you know, do their work and collaborate.

S2: It sounds like you’re saying that actually the office going forward will put even more of an emphasis on the kind of communal group meeting spaces that seem to be the most threatened by KOVA 19. Like, if anything, it’s the individual workstation that has proven itself obsolete. And the group space that seems more central than ever. 100 percent.

S9: What struck me in talking to John was how his plan to help clients through coded with kind of the same as his plan to help them after. He’s building for the world Cauvin created, in part because there seems to be a corporate consensus. What’s the point in dragging workers back to the office only to lock them inside plexiglass boxes? As the CEO of Warby Parker put it, his employees would rather be productive at home than, quote, going into what feels like a maze. In short, for many businesses, working from home is working. The long leases they signed for office space make them think long term. And that means that the plan for now and the plan proposed covered starting to coalesce around the same idea. Fewer workers in the office. For a second opinion, I went someplace a bit more familiar. You designed Slate’s offices, right?

S10: I did. So you guys in the Metro Tech location. Is that right?

S2: Yeah, that’s that’s where I that’s where I work. That’s Hannah Hackathon, a design principle at Eunice Pace, who helped create Slate’s New York office picture, brightly colored sofas, exposed ceilings and rows and rows of desks in her head. She’s already redoing the space for the covert era.

S10: If I were to redesign Slate office now, it would be probably less desk focus. And I’m not saying that that means that there’s no desk in the workplace going forward. But I think it’s rethinking that all those individual focused desk area where you guys have that whole open benching, horsing around those central conference function. Imagine all of that is gone and you’re seeing more of different community, of combination of the library table and mixed with a open scrum area that’s delineated by a some sort of a structure that you can accommodate technology and market boards and et cetera. Right. So the physical foundation of the desk layout or office layout, rather, are so substantially different.

S2: Well, so even if I end up sitting at a library table at the Slaid offices and my home base is really my desk at my house, where do I keep my stuff in the office? Do I not have a private space for myself anymore?

S10: That’s an excellent question. And I think it’s becoming you will definitely have your individual storage, whether it’s a form of lockers and whatnots that you don’t have to cost a truck around a locker. Like going to high school. I know that seems like a sort of rad idea, right? You know, one of the biggest challenge I think people may feel is that we used to personalize our individual desk area by putting our family’s picture or pet photos or individual charged keys, plans or whatnot. And I think we’re thinking that stays at home as your home based office. And think of office environment is the team structure. It’s a place where you’re coming in to collaborate.

S2: So. So basically in my home office now, I should have photos of my work colleagues rather than the other way.

S7: So quick caveat. Both Hannah and John would say the office has a future. It’s their job. And we’re talking about the companies like Slate, where employees can work from home. Not all jobs are conducive to remote work. But what struck me was that even their most optimistic case, the one where firms retain their corporate footprint, is also one where fewer employees use it. That means fewer secretaries, fewer cooks in the office cafeteria and fewer security guards in the lobby. And that slow down spills into the city. It takes customers away from the coffee cart, from the deli and from Big Mike at Astor here. So to understand how blocks of empty your office towers affect the rest of the city, I called up Ellen Baer. She’s the president of the Business Improvement District in a section of Manhattan called Hudson Square.

S2: For our listeners who might not be familiar. Can you kind of describe what Hudson Square is like on a normal day or I guess what what was a normal day until recently?

S11: Yes. Before the new normal, whatever that is. We have a lot of art deco twenty 1920s buildings that used to be used for printers and are now occupied by really by media and creative types, graphic designers. Disney is is going to be making their home there. Google is is opening their second headquarters there. And we are very much a business district. We are about 90 percent commercial. And so the streets are teeming with the creative class all day during a normal day in the old normal, you know, going about their business. Standing on line, exchanging thoughts as they’re getting their their sandwiches for lunch. And it’s very, very much bustling with young creative types.

S2: How many people work in the area? We have a daytime population of about 70000 people. So what has life been like without them?

S11: Well, our pedestrian counts were at one point down by 89 percent. They are currently stabilized in the low reduction year over year in the low 70s. So 70 percent to about 70 percent of the people who you would normally see walking down the street in Hudson Square are not there right now. And when those workers go away, that retail, which has been catering to them, loses its customer base.

S2: If it turns out that the companies do come back, but it may be remote, work becomes more popular and it and it takes in total nine or 12 months for activity to resume. Are the businesses in your neighborhood going to make it? Some of them will not.

S11: I don’t know what to say. Beyond that, we’re doing everything we can to help them. We’re providing a Park Litz outdoor spaces. We’re trying to organize the public realm for them. But the bottom line is they need customers. And I think something really interesting to think about is what is the impact of that on the ground floor environment? You know, it’s sort of a vicious cycle. We’re trying to make the neighborhood a place where people want to come back. But if if they don’t come back and the ground floor spaces begin to empty out, what does that do to the way it feels in the ground floor environment? So we have to we’re going to have to be really creative to try and figure out how we can keep our neighborhoods thriving as real New York neighborhoods.

S12: There’s a local precedent that gives people reason for optimism. Yorkers like to talk about how downtown came back after 9/11, how it defied the odds. And that’s kind of true. It did take billions of dollars from Washington and the office headcount didn’t reach 2001 levels until last year. But something else happened in lower Manhattan after 9/11. It became something more than an office district. The residential population tripled. Forty thousand people moved in. That trick may not work this time with everything shut down restaurants and nightlife going out of business and no need for a quick commute. Well, people even want to live in the city anymore. It’s a question we’ll try to answer in this series.

S13: And that’s the show. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks, Derek John and Allison Benedict helped with editorial direction for this episode. Thank you, Alison and Derek. TBD is part of the larger What Next family.

S14: TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. I’m Henry Goodbar. Thanks for listening. Mary will be back in your feed on Monday.