Sep 11, 2022 - Business

Seattle's softer approach to in-office work

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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

As companies like Apple enact stricter return-to-office policies, many large employers in the Seattle area are reluctant to take such a hard line.

Driving the news: Several businesses contacted by Axios in the past two weeks said they remain focused on giving their employees flexibility — which, in many cases, means letting them work from home most of the time.

Zoom in: Meta, which owns Facebook and employs more than 8,000 people in the Seattle area, said it isn't currently mandating that employees work a certain number of days in the office.

  • Amazon similarly hasn't instituted a companywide policy requiring workers to show up a minimum number of days per week, a spokesperson said.
  • Even some organizations leaning into in-office work are keeping it on the lighter side. Starting in October, Nordstrom aims for its hybrid teams to work in-person at least two days per week, a spokesperson told Axios.
  • That's less than Apple, which has started asking employees to come to the office a minimum of three days per week; or Google, where a spokesperson said employees are generally working about three days a week in person.

Why it matters: Washington's COVID-19 state of emergency is ending soon. But Seattle's downtown recovery continues to lag behind other cities, many of which didn't mandate COVID-19 business closures as early or as long.

  • A recent study from the Urban Displacement Project, a partnership between the University of California Berkeley and University of Toronto, found that downtown Seattle ranked 40th of 62 cities when it came to its rebound in downtown activity.

The big picture: Companies are trying to walk a fine line so as not to alienate employees.

What they're saying: Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, said companies' flexible, sometimes vague policies regarding in-office work haven't done the city's downtown core many favors.

  • Still, data from his organization shows downtown Seattle has rebounded faster than Los Angeles or San Francisco — and that things are on the upswing, he said.
  • Cell phone location data from July showed that workers were coming downtown at 40% of the level they did in 2019. That's more worker foot traffic than at any previous point in the pandemic, according to the association's recovery dashboard.
  • "We're seeing movement in the right direction over the last two months," Scholes told Axios.
  • Scholes predicted that more companies would start imposing clearer and stricter expectations for in-office work this fall.

What we're watching: Whether workers will ever return to spending most of their time in the office — and how the answer to that question will shape the city going forward.

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