return to office

This Thanksgiving, Landlords and Shareholders Desperately Wants Us Back in the Office. So What?

People in an office.
“Did you watch the latest episode of the most recent prestige television show appropriate to your interests?” Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

The new governor of New York, speaking recently at a “power breakfast” for the Association for a Better New York, an outfit whose board members range from one of the city’s most powerful publicists to government lobbyists for real-estate developers, to the government lobbyist for Lyft, to the comms person for ConEd, took an unexpected and vigorous stand: “It’s time to get back to the office.”

Oooh, why — are we all getting raises??? No. “Offices are still too empty and too many workers are at home,” is how she summed it up on Twitter. That is what toddlers everywhere recognize as Not a Reason.

Boris Johnson, both the prime minister of the U.K. and, apparently, the flirty school chum of Ghislaine Maxwell, said something even stranger, willing a return-to-office into being: “Mother Nature does not like working from home.” This has the strength of at least sounding like a new, weird, almost mystical idea. What does Mother Nature like about being at work, exactly?

And, of course, Hearst got its bossy pants on and told some employees they’d need to come back to work — first one, then two, then finally three days a week. So far, workers have declined the invitation and also have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, citing this as a change to workplace policy without appropriate bargaining. Hearst, which historically hasn’t been so happy about union organizing, must be pissed.

All this is what happens when politicians and bosses speak directly to their shareholder–and–board-of-directors base, forgetting that we can also hear them. Sure, shareholders believe we should be in an office. Workers? Well, we’re all over the place, but we tend to disagree. Why should we care that some Chopts have to die so that we may live better? Things are changing.

The elite class of workers — there are lots of useful ways to describe us, but let’s just use as shorthand “people who are assigned laptops when they start a job” — is refilling Manhattan. The chilly buildings are actually slowly filling up again; the lines at the carts of midtown have returned; the Los Tacos No. 1 by Grand Central is booming. Midday trips to the gym are back; the yoga classes are again cheek-to-jowl synchronized breathing. Gross, honestly! It’s the return, kinda, of fun-coat season in Manhattan. A twice-a-week commute turns out to be cute. Late-night car-service trips home; bad office coffee; a fresh and always mouthier crop of associates and interns and juniors — sure, they’re getting younger, but you’re truly getting older, especially since you aged double-time recently.

New York City, though, is nowhere near full on a Tuesday afternoon. And it won’t be getting there this Christmas.

The latest predictions are that the Manhattan office will be half-full by January. Real-estate interests are simultaneously pumping out dramatic reports about dire straits and declining tax coffers while having to celebrate their wins — an interesting mess of messages.

Midtown office space overall, according to real-estate company CBRE, was recently just shy of a 14 percent vacancy rate — that’s still about double the Manhattan-wide low of late 2019.

But real-estate firms have trumpeted a booming Q3 with a return to huge amounts of inventory being leased. And average midtown rents are still nearly $80 a square foot.

Shareholders and landlords are, you may be surprised to hear, going to continue to make money. It’s almost like they somehow always find a way.

Back to Work, Serf