Remote or Return? How Urban Economies Can Still Thrive with Permanent WFH

An image of a city scape

Originally published in Forbes, by Laurel Farrer

The great “Remote or Return?” debate is expanding beyond boardrooms and starting to create a buzz in government circles as well. With mask and social distancing mandates lifting around the country, it’s common knowledge that many employers are anxious to return to the office. But, from Seattle on the west coast to New York City on the East, state and city leaders are also voicing a plea for workers to resume their former commute to help stimulate urban economic development. In his State of the Union address this year, even President Biden encouraged the national workforce “to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again. People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office.” 

However, with political instability in Eastern Europe, gas prices on the rise, and the Great Resignation still in full force, professionals that have been working from home during the pandemic are still resistant to ditch their home offices to return to HQ. But is this workplace trend going to result in the downfall of our urban economies? 

There’s no arguing that infusing cities with foot-traffic commerce and tourism is important, but haven’t we also witnessed in the past two years how equally essential workplace flexibility is for economic development? After all, the ability to work from home was the key to maintaining business continuity for millions of businesses throughout the nation (especially during shelter-in-place orders in 2020), not to mention the alleviation of traffic pressure on transportation infrastructures, and lowering emissions for environmental sustainability. 

So, which is correct — does remote work help or hinder economic development? Arguably, it does both. Because many city centers and commercial districts were designed on the value of walkability, hybrid and remote work models are almost always going to be a risk. However, that doesn’t mean that we have to go back to the way things were in order to find a solution. Here are four ways that your community can adapt to the workplace flexibility trend to ensure economic growth stays strong without return-to-office mandates: 

  • Restaurants — Taking the team out for lunch after a long meeting might become a thing of the past in virtual-first companies, but as long as people still eat, there will still be options for businesses to support the dining industry. Employers often look to local food sources for perks and rewards for their distributed teams, so restaurants can increase their corporate business by participating in residential delivery services (DoorDash, GrubHub, Uber Eats), offering easy-to-email gift certificates, or repurposing empty tables as a coworking option for hungry workers on a platform like WorkChew

  • Revitalization — Does your city have an area that needs a little love? Hybrid teams are more likely to gather in-person for culture development activities than any other task or event, and there are only so many trust falls that a team can do. Cities can capitalize on this motivator to gather together by coordinating with local employers and/or volunteering platforms (like Goodera, VolunteerMatch, or United Way) to coordinate some assistance on community improvement projects. If volunteering isn’t the right match, you can also showcase local experiences like walking tours, cooking classes, or museum exhibits for teams to enjoy during their limited time of being together. 

  • Small Businesses — Great news! Remote work and the gig economy is the greatest thing to happen for entrepreneurship since the birth of the laptop. The ability to start a new business without expensive real estate and equipment overhead costs means that visionaries can launch with much lower capital and risk. Municipal leaders can help encourage new growth by hosting free networking events, small business fairs, and website design courses. 

  • Hospitality — Professionals that work from home more than 3 days a week are more likely to move away from urban and suburban areas to help reduce cost of living expenses. That may not be great news for downtown foot traffic, but local hotels should be giving each other a high-five because professionals visiting the office only a few times a month would never have needed hospitality services if they lived nearby. Now, they do. Any hotels that don’t already have a “preferred vendor” relationship with local employers should make that a priority, so they can be on speed dial any time a visiting employee needs a place to stay.  

The truth of the matter is that cities don't need to have workers commute to an office to stimulate the local economy. Rethinking how business can support both employers and employees without depending on their lunch-hour foot traffic will be the key to finding success and sustainability in the new normal.