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How the pandemic killed the five-day office work week

LinkedIn chief economist on employment trends
LinkedIn chief economist on "The Great Resignation," employment trends 05:14

Employees are heading back to offices around the U.S., but as old routines like long commutes, train rides and face-to-face meetings are revived, one thing will never be the same — the five-day work week.

Few office workers will be shackled to their desks now that the pandemic has made remote work the norm for white-collar employees. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul acknowledged the impact of that historic shift, saying earlier this month that "It may never be a five-day week again." 

"It may be four days with flexibility. It may be three and a half," she added. 

Echoing that idea, New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently alluded to the end of the customary work week where employees dutifully troop into the office every day. 

"We are moving into a new era of working and what New York is going to look like," he said. 

Getting workers out of their pajamas

In 2019, before the pandemic, New York City's office sector employed 1.6 million people, according to a report from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. But many desk workers shifted 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 anticipated a return-to-work that would include one-way traffic flow facilitated by directional arrows in offices, limited elevator capacity, open windows and a whole lot of plexiglass

But few of those design concepts have stuck. Instead, offices are becoming less siloed, and less, well, office-like in order to attract employees. Many workers say they'd rather skip their commutes, which have become more expensive due to rising gas prices, unless there's some sort of perk — like 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 — are getting workers out of their pajamas, off their couches and into offices.

How the pandemic changed commercial real estate 03:02

Office availability rates rose during the pandemic as companies shrank their property footprint and vacated spaces. Leasing activity on higher-end office spaces in Manhattan has picked back up faster than the overall rate, according to CBRE, a commercial real estate firm. 

"We're seeing that higher quality office space is actually recovering faster than the rest of the market, and the reason for that is tenants that are transacting are showing a desire to go into that type of space," said Julie Whelan, a future of work expert at CBRE. 

Business districts take a hit

The work-from-home phenomenon has also led to a reshuffling of where business activity takes place. 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 were spilling out onto sidewalk street and midtown felt like a ghost town."

Lunch crowds in once bustling business districts thinned out as professionals shifted to working from home. Retailers in residential neighborhoods, meanwhile, got a lift from homebound workers. 

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

It is unclear if business districts across the country will ever be as populated 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 City. "They are now seeing a lot more activity in [residential] neighborhoods, and that translates on a national level."

More workers are demanding flexibility

Financial services companies have generally been the most reluctant to give workers more flexibility to work from the location of their choice, arguing that face-to-face interaction is imperative both for individuals' professional development and for sealing business deals with clients. 

Yet even hard-knuckled Wall Street firms have had to accommodate employees' changing expectations. 

"Even they have seemingly indicated work-from-home is acceptable one day a week," Braus said. "When you translate that to occupancy and retail sales, even letting people stay home one day a week, that's a 20% hit to sales, basically."

The death of the five-day office work week is being driven largely by workers who saw an improvement in their work-life balance while working remotely, and who are getting choosier about their employers.

"The talent is driving the agenda, definitely. There was some work-week flexibility pre-COVID, but it was not widely the case that people were working remotely one day a week — unless they were on business travel," said Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, an influential nonprofit group that advocates for businesses. 

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Many employers have decided do adopt a hybrid model of work, with employees splitting their weeks between in-office and remote work. Other companies have decided to go fully remote.

Before the pandemic, in New York City fewer than 4% of jobs were fully remote, according to the Partnership for New York City. Today, nearly 11% of job listings are for fully-remote positions. 

"Increasingly, when people, especially women, are hired they are asking about the flexibility in the work week. They have found that the opportunity to work from home has given them time with their families that they really value, and this is most true of those with long commutes," Wylde said. 

This is a particular issue in New York City, where on average, workers commute 42 minutes each way. "So people literally get almost two hours back in their day if the don't have to make that daily commute. We all know time is the most valuable commodity we have," Wylde said. "I think most employers are being responsive to employee needs." 

Offering flexibility has become key to employers' recruitment efforts, too, according to Braus of Lee & Associates. 

"Employers face that dynamic where if I tell a potential recruit they're expected to be in four to five days a week, that itself could be a disincentive for them working at my company," he said. "If you're going to look for new office space, it has to be the coolest, newest, best office space there is — otherwise there is going to be a real issue in terms of getting future employees."

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