Labor Day was designated to acknowledge the Labor Movement’s victories to reform the American workplace; the creation of the 8-hour workday, the 40-hour workweek, and safer, humane working conditions.  Contrary to opponents’ beliefs at the time, the reforms lead to the greatest century of productivity and the highest standard of living in the world.  This Labor Day it seems worth pondering how changes to the work environments can materially improve the quality of life of employees, and possibly have a lighter footprint on built and natural environment.

Florida Trend Magazine annually features the “Best Companies[1] to Work for in Florida”. This year’s top ten, featured in the magazine’s August issue, were asked to describe how COVID19 has impacted their business practices. As expected, many had to adjust to a newly-remote workforce, but months into the pandemic several are also considering making some form of remote working permanent. Of the ten firms interviewed for the article, eight firms plan to allow some level of remote-work in the future, and at least two companies mention re-evaluating the configuration of their office space. This will change the work/home-life balance of employees and their families, the size and type of commercial office spaces we seek, and even the pulse and timing of commuting and shopping.  Below are excerpts of what some company executives said to Florida Trend.

  • Hunton Andrews Kruth, Miami,   “ ‘During the coronavirus shutdown, employees enjoyed not having to commute to work every day and remained just as productive, if not more so,’ says Juan Enjamio, managing partner of the firm’s Miami office.  He says that remote working and video conferences also have led to cost-saving for the firm due to lower travel expenses.”
  • GunnChamberlain, Jacksonville, FL “Gunn, who describes himself as old-school in his view on telecommuting says he’ll be more open to allowing employees to work remotely in the future. ‘It honestly worked well for us. I was a little surprised,’ he says. ‘The productivity of our team stayed up, and as long as that’s the case, I’m happy whether people are working at home or in the office.’ ”
  • KnowBe4, Clearwater, FL. “There is a new normal, and it will definitely be different. But does that mean everyone will work at home always? No. Tons of people want to come back because it’s way more fun to work in the office with the team. Will we be a little more flexible and let people work from home one day a week? Maybe.”
  • Squaremounth, St. Petersburg Florida “Three years ago, Squaremouth had bought a historic church building in St. Petersburgh hoping to create a millennial’s dream office with a badminton court, snooker table, video games, napping couches, a bar and treehouses for meeting spaces. The company planned to move into the building once the renovations were completed. But in the wake of stay-at-home orders and mass telecommuting, Squaremouth has decided to let employees work from home indefinitely, even after the pandemic ends.  ‘The company will keep its leased offices in downtown St. Petersburg for when employees ‘need to get out of the house’, Barto says, ‘We’re not required to come in.’ The old church building is now up for sale. ‘Employees really aren’t looking for that hip new office space anymore,’ she says. ‘The focus has shifted to workplace flexibility.’ ”

A shift toward remote-work will factor into commercial real estate leasing and home purchases.  For commercial space, industry experts note that some companies may reduce the size of their footprint, as fewer workers will occupy the office on any given day.  A New York CBRE commercial real estate broker told me, ”that clients are looking for less square footage and we are giving up a whole floor at one of our Manhattan locations”. The open floor plan, which had been touted to encourage collaboration and a flatter hierarchy, may give way to small office spaces. These offices may no longer be personal private spaces, but rather generic spaces used by whoever comes in on a given day. Teleconference meetings have also reduced the need for multiple conference room spaces.  Smaller office footprints, fewer daily commuters, and less business travel suggest lower energy consumption, fewer cars per household, fewer air and road miles traveled; all beneficial to the environment. However, countervailing forces are also at play.

COVID19 and remote-work trends may also shift living preferences from denser cities to suburbs, which will have negative climate impacts.  Zillow CEO has noted that remote work may be one factor driving the hot housing market, as apartment dwellers seek larger living spaces to accommodate home offices, in some cases for two people in households with two wage earners. Other researchers contend that this phenomenon is specific to high-priced coastal cities, but not a national trend, Relocations from dense urban cities to sprawling suburbs is viewed as less energy efficient because the lack of public transit and the longer travel distances between destinations encourages car travel. Walking and bicycle transportation is less feasible with longer distances and road networks comprised largely of highways.  Moreover, 24-hour occupancy of bigger residential homes drives up residential electricity demand because conditioning/heating, lights, computers, and TVs will be operating throughout the day.  Workers tend to pick up these indirect costs of remote-work arrangements, impacting net wage earnings. The trade-offs of this spatial shift have not been accurately quantified yet.

At a larger scale, the change toward complete remote-work places may redistribute population, their talents, and their income to secondary and more affordable suburban and even rural markets. In the San Francisco Bay area, one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, technology companies including Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc. Slack Technologies have declared that their employees can work remotely for good. Employees, who endured long commute times in return for housing affordability, are now freed. While many will remain in the orbit of agglomeration economy centers, like Silicone Valley, others are now free to live in their vacation paradise or buy a farm. According to a Wall Street Journal, some employees are planning moves to neighboring cities and states, bringing with them new skills sets and income that could invigorate secondary markets, like Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Horse Creek, YM.  The climate impact of these demographic shifts depends on the specifics of the sending and receiving destinations.  For example, depopulating expensive California markets increasingly subject to climate exacerbated wildfires may reduce vulnerability. But if those destination areas include parched Arizona and New Mexico, it may put additional pressure on increasingly scarce water resources.

What we can be surmised from shifts in workplaces is that more research is needed to understand their multi-dimensional impacts.  If we are at the dawn of a geospatial re-organization of home and work relationships, we ought to plan appropriately to engender patterns that improve climate resilience.

[1] The list is compiled by Best Companies Group and is based on a survey of company policies, practices, and demographics, as well as a questionnaire sent of employees.