The Post-COVID downtown

And where do we go from here?
Which is a way that’s clear.

Rock on: David Essex

We are over 80 days confined to home and are mostly a mixed bag of anxiety and anticipation as our economy slowly rolls open. We’ve never been here before. We’ve never had this kind of wonder about our future before. The only thing that is for certain is that no one has a clue about what comes next.

In most cities almost 90% of all restaurant staff are no longer working. Rideshare, taxi and public transportation usage has fallen off the deep end of the deep end, there are no more summer festivals, concerts or gatherings and the likelihood of getting on a plane for a destination vacation is next to zero.

We are waiting for the magic switch that turns on the economy in whatever shape it looks like when we are ready. We’ve been warned about what this might look like coming back. The restrictions on gathering size, social distancing in restaurants and shops. We’ve heard it from every level of government. These are all assuming that there are consumers willing to part with their money on the other side of this.

Unprecedented unemployment

We are in the midst of massive layoffs and company restructurings that will generally see fewer people employed — permanently. These aren’t temporary layoffs. These are ground shifting times and business will look drastically different when they wake up whenever that is. There will be fewer employees. Period. We may not stick at 13% of our nation unemployed but it won’t be near the all time lows we were seeing prior to the pandemic.

Work from home

Many companies and even governments are calling themselves “work from home first” now. That means they are giving their staff the right to decide where to work from. The impact of this is deep. Competition for talent is now truly global and, regardless of the company headquarters, WFH means more flexibility in hiring outside of the city. Having an HQ in a city won’t mean what it used to mean.

Then there is real estate/corporate leasing side where a combination of layoffs and WFH will mean fewer square feet in leases. This will impact cleaning teams, security guards, snack/food companies that deliver to the offices as well as telecoms companies that support infrastructure and connectivity requirements for the offices.

There has also developed a great ecosystem of downtown services that really only service the core office goers during office hours. Take a huge portion of those people away and the impact will be felt by the local diners, coffee shops and dry cleaners.

Then there is transportation. With fewer people coming into the office to work, fewer people will take the bus or taxis or rideshare. Less commute time means fewer lattes from Starbucks, fewer podcasts consumed, etc.

You get the point.

These shifts were supposed to be gradual as we eased into a remote work society over the next number of years. Instead we’ve been startled into it and are now adapting — perhaps too far to one side. The pendulum will swing a little but it certainly won’t go back to where it was. We have to be prepared for another fallout due to the impact of our post COVID-19 world.

Even when we get a vaccine, the combination of fewer people working (or working for less money) + the work from home economy will give shape to an economy that is drastically different from where we were just 80+ short days ago.