October 24, 2020

Editor's Page

The Limits of Home-Work

Mark R. Howard | 9/25/2020

In the face of a Big Event, it seems to be an occupational hazard, I’m sorry to say, for some journalists to leap from the initial experience of the event to overblown, simplistic conclusions.

And so it has been with the pandemic. Within a few weeks of employees being asked to work from home, a raft of “this-changes-everything” articles began appearing, purporting that the pandemic had forever altered the workplace. Office space, some said, was becoming an unnecessary expense — soon everyone would be working remotely. Some surveys reflected large percentages of employers claiming they’d be reducing their office space in the coming months.

Indeed, a few firms have decided to go office-less, or dramatically reduce their office space footprint. Amid the pandemic, for example, Nationwide Insurance closed an office in Gainesville as part of what it said was a transition to a hybrid operating model nationally — four main corporate campuses, with employees in most other locations working from home.

But will the current spurt of home-work really reshape the entire commercial real estate landscape? I don’t think so. Nor does Larry Richey, who has a good vantage point from which to evaluate developments. He’s the managing principal for Florida for Cushman & Wakefield, the commercial real estate firm that employs some 900 people in the state across a range of business lines, from brokering space and investments to appraisals and other corporate services. Richey sees things both from the perspective of someone who brokers space to employers — and as an employer himself.

Some companies, including several retail chains that had been operating on thin financial ice before the pandemic, did in fact use work-at-home to cut their office space as a costsaving measure, he says.

But most employers and workers, he says, have found limitations in home-work. Workers, excited at having newfound flexibility in their work lives, generated an initial burst of productivity from their desks at home, but many began finding that spouses, children, roommates, pets and other distractions meant the home-working environment “all of a sudden could become awfully crowded.”

Contrary to what some might expect, Richey says, Millennials were among the first to realize that working at home had a downside. “When you’re young and inexperienced, you learn by talking face-to-face and watching body language,” Richey says. “Some of those employees who are learning their skills have felt lost, even those with really good mentors. There’s a big part of that relationship that’s missing when you’re not in the office together.”

Employees hired during the pandemic, he says, have had it even worse. “You just can’t get assimilated in a new firm the same way as you can when you’re in the office.”

As for the business impact on the commercial real estate sector, even if the number of employees who work at home doubles, it will still only amount to 10% of the workforce. Richey says Cushman & Wakefield’s Florida offices were back up to 80% of their previous volume by early August.

Instead of a broad move toward virtual operations, Richey thinks that long term, the pandemic will produce a subtle shift. Employers will give their workers a little more flexibility — as long as the firms feel they can manage that flexibility fairly, and as long as workers maintain their productivity. What works for small firms may not work for big firms. What works for firms in one industry may not work for firms in others, he says.

“It just depends — on the nature of your business, on your clients, on geographically where you live, on the leadership of a company and how well the company is doing. Do you need to cut costs? How old, how experienced, how healthy is your team?”

Richey’s comments resonate with our own experience at Florida Trend. Over the years, many of our writers have worked from home offices — I think it’s appropriate, and strategic, for a statewide business magazine to have writers in more than one community. We’re supposed to know all parts of the state intimately, not just watch them from our home office here in St. Petersburg.

And so when I’ve had to hire someone, I’ve looked for mature, experienced reporters who know and love their communities. If they’re comfortable working from home, I’ve encouraged them to work from there. Mike Vogel, our South Florida editor, has done fantastic work for 20 years now from his home in Broward County.

But I’m aware that some need a more traditional office environment to be productive. And until the pandemic, all our writers and editors met regularly in person so we could feel like we are part of a team — more than a gaggle of solo practitioners.

Zoom is a great tool but ultimately can’t replace being in the same room with a colleague. Those of us who work here at Trend’s main office found we miss the ability to interact face-to-face with each other during the editing process. And as soon as the lockdown eased, the magazine’s managing editor, John Annunziata, and I began meeting weekly downtown — suitably distanced — at a coffee shop. Those meetings are productive, work-wise, but they also create an enjoyable punctuation mark during a time that seems to have no rhythm, when the days seem to bleed into each other.

As Richey suggests, there’s more to a workplace than maintaining productivity — people work best when they feel connected to an enterprise and engaged with co-workers. Employers may find they can get along with a little less space, and employees may get the freedom to work from home more frequently, but neither will want to give up the office altogether. “You miss the human contact,” he says. “People enjoy that more than they realize.”

— Mark Howard, Executive Editor
[mhoward@floridatrend.com]

 

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