Axios @Work

An office watercooler.

October 06, 2020

Welcome back to @Work. Get in touch with me at [email protected] or on Twitter @erica_pandey.

I've got 1,457 words for you today, which should take 5 minutes to read. First up...

1 big thing: Why New York won't return to work

Illustration of Statue of Liberty on a Zoom call

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Americans all over the country are going back to their offices, but New Yorkers aren't.

Why it matters: Office workers are super-drivers of New York City's economy and essential to its post-pandemic recovery. Scores of businesses in the city are suffocating as they delay their return to work or, worse, decide to work from home forever.

"Manhattan has really gone downhill since the pandemic began," says Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban planning at NYU. "There are no tourists, no shoppers and, of course, no workers."

By the numbers: Nationally, around 25% of workers have returned to offices, the Wall Street Journal reports. In Los Angeles, 32% have gone back, and in Dallas, 40%.

  • But only 12% of New Yorkers have returned, according to the latest numbers from commercial real estate firm CBRE, which manages 20 million square feet of office space in the city.

What's happening: "All of the reasons why New York is suffering disproportionately right now are related to its competitive advantages," says Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance.

  • The city has a robust public transit system, which is how most people get to work. Driving-first cities have seen higher rates of return than New York, where many workers are still nervous about virus transmission on buses and trains.
  • The restaurants, shops, museums and theaters that give the city its charm are closed or running at limited capacity, and so many have fled to the Hamptons or elsewhere, and commuters who travel in from Long Island, Connecticut or New Jersey are staying away.
  • The city's density is also working against it. In fact, in the city's suburbs, return-to-work rates are around 33%, per CBRE.

On top of that, New Yorkers have been spooked by the early, aggressive coronavirus caseloads in the city.

  • "Now that we’re in that mindset, I think it's very hard to shift gears and come out of it," says Nicole LaRusso of CBRE. "There was such an emphasis on, 'We need to stay home to stay safe.' I think that that message sunk in."
  • Look for New York's return to work to remain slow as cases are rising again.

The bottom line: "It’s unnerving for everyone to have this relative stillness in New York City," Tompkins says. "But people who have been through a few cycles of New York’s capacity for reincarnation are more comfortable."

My thought bubble: I just moved here in February, and I'm still feeling pretty bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about all of it. So can we please stop saying "New York is over"?

2. The biggest problem with remote work

Illustration of a person working at a desk in the middle of a island

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Most Americans want the telework trend to continue after the pandemic, but there's a lingering problem that companies haven't been able to solve: working at home is isolating.

Why it matters: A sense of belonging at work is becoming increasingly important to workers — and employers who figure out how to build that into the hybrid work culture of the future will have a critical advantage when recruiting and retaining talent.

  • That's a key takeaway from Slack's inaugural index of remote work as part of the company's new Future Forum. I got a peek at the analysis, which will be released tomorrow.
  • Slack surveyed 4,700 teleworkers across the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Japan and Australia. The consensus was that working remotely has greatly improved work-life balance but increased isolation.

"Stress levels are down, and productivity is up," says Brian Elliott, VP of the Future Forum. "Sense of belonging is where, on average, the challenge is greatest."

  • The index assigns points to each sentiment, and while work-life balance and productivity are up 25.7 and 10.7 points, respectively, belonging is down 5.
  • And contrary to what managers might think, more Zoom meetings is not the answer. Workers who attended regular catch-up meetings actually reported lower scores on sense of belonging (–2.7) than those who received updates through emails or messages (+5.8).
  • "Cramming people's days with status check-in meetings make it worse," Elliott says.

Slack's data also shows the extent to which the pandemic has changed America's attitudes about work.

  • Only around 12% of people want to go back to the office full time, and only around 11% want to stay home forever. The rest want some sort of mix.
  • Flashback: Before the pandemic, less than 4% of American employees worked from home full time.

3. Women's workplace crisis — quantified

Illustration of a woman holding an eroding briefcase

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

We're starting to see evidence of the coronavirus' erosion of women's workplace gains: 865,000 American women left the labor force in September, compared with 216,000 men.

Why it matters: Many of the women dropping out hold senior-level positions at companies, and their exit from the workforce means the already-abysmal representation of women in leadership at U.S. firms will get even worse.

  • Before the pandemic, women held 28% of senior vice president roles and 21% of C-suite roles, per a new report from McKinsey and Lean In.
  • Now 1 in 4 women in these top positions are thinking of leaving their jobs, compared with 1 in 6 men in such roles, the report notes.
  • "We could unwind the progress of the last five years and perhaps beyond," says Alexis Krivkovich, a managing partner at McKinsey and a co-author or the report. "The four-alarm fire is the fact that this issue is acute for senior women."

One big driver of this troubling trend is the pandemic's child care crisis, Krivkovich says.

  • 76% of mothers with children under age 10 say child care has been among their top three challenges during the pandemic, compared with 54% of fathers, writes Axios' Fadel Allassan.
  • As dual-income households around the country decide that one parent needs to stay home with the kids, moms are typically the ones to leave their jobs.

But there's reason to believe the pandemic will actually benefit working women in the long run.

"The No. 1 thing women historically would cite as the thing that would most help them gain prominence in their career is flexibility," says Krivkovich.

And now — seven months into working from home — firms are thinking about adding more flexibility into the workweek.

  • 93% say they are open to a remote/in-person hybrid future, and 91% say they will reduce business travel for employees.

4. Catch up quick: Rapid job-shedding

Big companies across a slew of industries have already announced massive layoffs this fall.

The big picture: The travel and leisure industries have been hit hardest as the pandemic drags on.

Here's a roundup of the headlines, from my colleague Ursula Perano:

5. Worthy of your time

Data: IBM Institute for Business Value; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios
Data: IBM Institute for Business Value; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Executives think they're handling the future of work. Workers disagree. (Axios)

  • Per a new IBM survey, employers are embracing a new, more digitized way of working accelerated by the pandemic, while employees fear being left behind. The realities of COVID-19 compressed years of remote work growth into a matter of months. But the onus is now on executives to support their workforces as the crisis shifts to the new normal.

The shapes of the economic crisis (New York Times)

  • We're six months past April's unemployment peak, and while many jobs have come back, many others have not and may even disappear forever. The New York Times' Ella Koeze dives into the state of the economy with a series of telling charts.

The debt U.S. companies owe Black Americans (Quartz)

  • Here's a look at why companies' pronouncements of solidarity and marketing campaigns amid racial justice protests rang hollow, and what firms can do to actually make a difference and make amends.

Enjoy your meal — quickly (Wall Street Journal)

  • Restaurants are tweaking menus and giving diners time limits to cope with limited capacity during the pandemic. To sweeten the deal, some places are giving people to-go cocktails on their way out.

6. 1 sign of the times: The decline of businesswear

Suits on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (before the pandemic, of course). Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

As I've written, the pandemic's work-from-home experiment is eroding what was left of workplace dress codes.

  • The first sign I saw was a slump in stiletto sales, as women no longer needed sky-high heels for work.
  • Now the wider business-wear industry is taking a hit, according to a new report from Coresight Research.

What's happening: 40% of Americans say they typically wear comfortable clothes or athleisure when working from home.

As a result, retailers that sell businesswear — like Brooks Brothers, Men’s Wearhouse, Jos. A. Bank, and Ann Taylor and Loft — are closing stores and filing for bankruptcy.

The bottom line: Even when we do go back to work, it'll be Casual Friday every day, and work clothes will be a lot comfier.

  • "Over the next three years, work-leisure apparel is expected to become more mainstream," per Coresight.

Thanks for reading!