Rumors of the death of the office have been greatly exaggerated

Offices aren’t dead, they’re simply evolving. And urban real-estate players and businesses alike need help spreading the word, argues George Shea.

(Photo credit: Getty Images).
(Photo credit: Getty Images).

In the last year, Americans have witnessed the greatest workplace transformation since the Industrial Revolution: the death of the office. 

Or maybe not. Offices aren’t dead, they’re simply evolving. Now more than ever, urban real-estate players and businesses alike need help spreading the word. Here are three main points PR practitioners can push to fight office-extinction narratives, and why such messages matter.

Remote work has had dire socioeconomic consequences for America’s cities, and many could feel the economic pain for up to a decade, according to the Brookings Institution. America’s critical tourism and hospitality sectors face, perhaps, the greatest recovery challenge. From March 2020 to this spring, New York City alone shed 140,700 jobs just in restaurants and bars, a 43% drop, according to the NYC Hospitality Alliance.

As U.S. cities go, so goes the nation, and the rest of the world, economically. American cities account for 85% of the U.S. gross domestic product, and American cities collectively contribute more to global GDP than the rest of the world’s cities combined, a McKinsey analysis found. Beyond economics, American cities vibrate with vitality; they are beacons for diversity, talent, art, food and culture that teach people things they could never learn on a couch, no matter how comfortable it is.

Remote work is an inadequate substitute for in-person work, according to a growing body of corporate research, scholarly studies, contemporaneous surveys and employers’ anecdotal reports. Offices are like communities. And a sense of community can create valuable psychological, social and cultural experiences for workers, to say nothing of new relationships, from making friends to meeting spouses and networking for career advancement. On the flip side are the potential negative effects of isolation on workers’ emotional and physical well-being.

Remote work threatens innovation and growth for companies and their workers. Less time in the office can mean fewer serendipitous encounters and opportunities for ingenuity, incidental learning and collaboration. Communication can decline because of remote work, with people struggling to read social cues and tone via video conferencing services and email and messages getting lost in translation.

Bosses face a long list of potential challenges, especially when it comes to teaching and mentoring remote workers. Plus, tracking and managing employees pose potential challenges. Finally, a year into the pandemic, employees report feeling exhausted as personal and professional life boundaries have blurred.

Employers may feel overly cautious about being candid regarding the disadvantages of remote work, in wanting to respect employees’ reservations about returning to the office. They don’t want to seem insensitive in a time of heightened social tensions. But PR people have several tried and true means at their disposal to push back against false narratives of offices’ death and inessentiality.

Among them will be efforts to promote clients for expert commentary, creating bylined opinion columns, prompting media trend stories and creating news hooks by strategically amplifying research and campaigns. The stakes, the health of the wider economy and the vitality of American cities, remain extremely high.

George Shea is principal and CEO of Shea Communications, a media relations firm based in Manhattan with a specialty in real estate and law firms.

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