Remote work is here to stay, forcing cities to get a handle on a post-pandemic trend that promises freedom from daily commutes and related climate pollution and a boon to affordable housing, but is so far leading to vacant office buildings and desolate downtowns.
“Work from home is not going away,” wrote New York Times columnist Peter Coy, around one month before U.S. officials declared the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency that emptied office towers in cities across America.
But while office buildings have reopened, the consensus amongst experts consulted by the Times is that the share of days worked from home will stabilize near the current level of 30%. “My view is it’s probably going to settle out around 25%, which is roughly five times what it was before the pandemic,” said Steven Davis, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s public policy think tank.
And yet WFH arrangements remain “a tug of war,” Coy says, noting that “the energy behind working from home is very much coming from employees, not employers.” He cites a recent LinkedIn study of job postings on its website, which found that the 12.2% of paid postings in February that offered remote work positions attracted 51.9% of applications.
“There’s a disconnect or mismatch that we’ve seen brewing,” said LinkedIn’s chief economist Karin Kimbrough.
Canadian workers are also keen to stay at home. Ranstad reported in January that about 31% of workers were still fully remote, up 25% from pre-pandemic levels. Polled in 2022, 78% of remote workers said they preferred remote to office work, up from 64% in December, 2020. But major employers like the Royal Bank of Canada and Amazon have mandated employees come into the office three days a week, citing productivity concerns—and illustrating the “disconnect” Kimbrough observed.
No Commute, Work-Life Balance
One big reason for the popularity of WFH is the associated evaporation of “the daily commute,” which Times columnist Farhad Manjoo describes as “a ritual of American life that’s time-consuming, emotionally taxing, environmentally toxic, and expensive.”
In 2019, the average one-way commute in the United States reached a new high of nearly 28 minutes, Manjoo writes, citing U.S. Census Bureau data. Almost 40% of Americans had to endure commutes lasting half an hour or more each way, each day, while about 10% were adding an hour or more of travel time to the start and end of their work day.
Fast forward to October, 2022, and Americans were spending 60 million fewer hours per day travelling to work. “That’s 60 million hours for which they weren’t being compensated that they can now spend exercising, taking care of their children, getting a bit more sleep, and starting their workday earlier or ending it later,” writes Manjoo.
And 71% of those who work from home “all, most, or some of the time, say doing so helps them balance their work and personal lives,” the Pew Research Center found in March.
The same is true in Canada, with remote-work satisfaction increasing between 2020 and 2022, as professionals learned to work from home efficiently and realized that the absence of a commute “reclaimed both time and money,” Ranstad reported.
The climate and energy impact of that shift begins with the 2.9 billion gallons of gasoline that drivers idled away in gridlock traffic in the U.S. alone in 2014, a total that likely increased year after year until the pandemic brought the daily commute to a different kind of standstill. In that era, transportation planners knew a relatively small change in traffic volume would be enough to deliver a large reduction in congestion and idling, and tried different techniques and incentives to encourage drivers to shift their trips out of rush hour.
Now, the energy and carbon savings due to reduced congestion have to be weighed against increased energy use when remote workers are home all day. But the sudden transformation in commuting habits was just one instance where the pandemic showed how sharply entrenched habits can change, given an immediate enough sense of urgency.
A Remote Work Peril: Dead Downtowns
In December, 2022, Business Insider warned that the “unassailable stickiness” of remote work meant an “office apocalypse” was now under way in big cities, a social and economic disaster that would be very difficult to arrest, or repair.
“Less economic activity in urban cores and a lower tax base could mean fewer jobs and reduced government services, perpetuating a vicious cycle that further reduces foot traffic in downtowns, leading to more decline, more crime, and a lower quality of life,” wrote BI.
The shift to remote work has also been a blow to the downtown real estate market. One study estimated that US$453 billion in value would be lost across U.S. cities, “with a 17-percentage-point decline in lease revenue from January 2020 to May 2022.” Almost 50 million square feet of office space are now languishing empty in Canadian downtowns, “the equivalent of 89 baseball stadiums the size of Rogers Centre in Toronto,” states a recent analysis in the Globe and Mail.
The Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) calls [pdf] for “timely and nimble” policy changes guided by best practices, in a report about converting office space to housing. Published earlier this spring, the report is based on earlier CUI research that found the pandemic has placed many downtown cores on one of two distressing trajectories: decreasing affordability and diversity, or abandonment and neglect.
Focusing on six cities—Victoria, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Halifax and Moncton—the report “evaluates the potential for the adaptive reuse of aging office stock and vacant space to increase Canada’s housing supply (ownership, rental, and supportive) while helping our downtowns become resilient to future shocks.”
Identifying “millions of square feet suitable for conversion to housing,” in the six focus cities, and adding “millions more square feet of under-utilized office space” in five more, CUI sees the potential to create 18,000 to 22,000 housing units in just 11 cities across Canada.
There are also concerns about the loss of tax revenue as downtown businesses go bust. Almost one-third of cities polled in a 2022 survey by the U.S. National League of Cities said “they’d be in a difficult financial situation in 2023 once federal [pandemic] funds disappear,” BI wrote.
Only one thing can save the beleaguered downtowns of several North American cities, the news story suggests: making the buildings, and the spaces around them, work for the people. “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans,” BI writes, quoting iconic urbanist Jane Jacobs’ famous 1958 article, Downtown Is for People.
One solution along this line of thinking is to convert empty office towers into housing for the masses. But such efforts will have serious stumbling blocks to navigate, including construction costs, rising interest rates, and calcified zoning laws.
How to Repurpose a Downtown
The Canadian Urban Institute documents some of the obstacles to converting 9-5 downtowns into 24/7 communities, while recounting at least one powerful success story.
Barriers may include “static business models” like commercial real estate businesses unwilling to move into housing development, and a “lack of specialized knowledge and skills: building trades unaccustomed to conversion versus new construction.”
Conversely, critical details like operable windows, proximity to amenities, flexible zoning, climate and affordable housing goals, and market incentives like high housing demand are enabling conditions for conversion.
The report offers a “conversion suitability score” out of 100 for official building archetypes like the brutalist high-rise, the steel-frame high-rise, the low-rise building, the heritage mid-rise, and the “challenging [multi-level] mid-rise.”
Heritage mid-rises can prove challenging, but CUI notes that success is possible, as shown by the ongoing Indigenous-led conversion of the former Hudson’s Bay Company headquarters in Winnipeg into a multi-purpose space called Wehwehneh Bahgahkinaghohn, meaning ‘it is visible.”
Once complete, Wehwehneh Bahgahkinaghohn will house “a museum and art gallery exhibiting Indigenous history and the repatriation of artifacts, a grocery store, and the upcoming First Nations Bistro Restaurant,” as well as the Governance House for the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, a child care centre, and commercial spaces for First Nations non-profits.
“Floors three to five will house 75 units each for a total of 225 flexibly-designed affordable housing units from studio to three-bedroom configurations, and the sixth floor will feature 90 assisted living units with 10 more geared towards social assisted living with a full package of amenities,” writes CUI. “Each residential floor will feature common spaces such as shared kitchens, dining and party areas, and a cultural room with a real fire.”
“The creation of these units is meant to make up for the lack of high quality, safe, and affordable housing for the First Nations community in Winnipeg,” CUI says. The conversion of the building “represents the best of what can be done with a building once considered to have zero monetary value when the political will and community interest are present.”
Affordable Homes for All
The Canadian Poverty Institute says more than 14% of Canadians are living on low incomes, and “many more live precariously from paycheque to paycheque and are at risk of falling into poverty.” Affordable housing is crucial for those households, and for many others further up the income ladder.
Responding to news that the federal government is looking to relinquish its ownership of 10 buildings in the national capital region, Ottawa Centre Member of Parliament Yasir Naqvi described the three million square metres of government office space poised to be released from their past lives as “an excellent opportunity to convert them into affordable homes and redesign for community and commercial use,” reports CTV News.
Kaite Burkholder Harris, director of the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa, agreed that affordable housing must be top of mind as policy-makers contemplate the future of the buildings. “Non-profit affordable housing is always part of the solution,” she told CBC. “It’s really, really critical.”