Back in the Saddle

06/14/2021

So we’re in the post-apocalypse now. Last week I ate indoors in a restaurant for the first time in 14 months. I also got on an airplane.

We haven’t had an experience like this in the past century, but we’ve made plenty of movies about it, which is perhaps the reason that it all seems vaguely familiar. This is the part of the film where the survivors of, say, a nuclear holocaust come cautiously creeping out of their caves, blinking in the bright sunlight at a new landscape.

In this particular movie, it’s not the landscape that’s changed. It’s us. The script for this movie might have been written by Rod Serling.

The long withdrawal from our accustomed lives gave us a lot of time to think, and one of the things we thought about was technology. It’s not like we were unaware that we were living in an era of rapid tech development before the pandemic, but we had a different attitude about it. We thought we could pick and choose what we wanted from the real world or the virtual one.

Pre-pandemic, we could go to a casino in Las Vegas, or stay in our living room and go gambling online. We could go on a virtual tour of homes, or actually get in the car with a real estate agent. Go to a stage play or stream something on a laptop. Play a sport or simulate one on our own TV.

When all those options were gone, we got to see what a fully technology-driven life would be like. In the world of 2020, you either did things electronically or you didn’t do them at all, and that dictum applied to everything from business to education to our personal lives. In most cases, the verdict seems to be that we liked things the way they used to be. Electronics is a huge part of our society and will remain so, but the things that we chose to do in person before the pandemic, we would like to go back to doing in person.

In most cases, but not all.

According to an article on CNBC.com last month, most major corporations have been very slow to make commitments regarding any sort of timetable for bringing office workers back to the office. It cited a survey indicating that only 9 percent of large firms started refilling office buildings over the winter, while 12 percent planned to do so in the current quarter and 21 percent over the summer. Forty percent had no specific plan.

The more important question, though, is how much of their office space will not be reclaimed at all. A lot of employees have proven that they can be just as productive working from home, or that they only need to be in the office one or two days a week. Given that real estate is one of the biggest expense lines most companies have, there’s no way they’re going to continue paying for more space than they need.

It won’t be just the employers looking to save money, either. The costs associated with commuting have gone up substantially in recent years, not to mention the strain it can put on a whole family. In many cases, employees can even find more affordable housing when it doesn’t require as much proximity to downtown office buildings.

Speaking of which, there is a clear trend emerging in terms of downsizing urban office space, especially among retailers who had already reduced their store count. Nordstrom, for example, let the lease expire on a Seattle tower, citing the “personal preferences” of its workforce. Old Navy will clear out of its corporate headquarters in San Francisco and move in with its nearby parent company, Gap Inc.

A few major retailers have actually put a number on their intended office reduction. Ralph Lauren will cut about 30 percent of corporate real estate in North America. The largest drugstore chain, CVS, is also reducing office square footage by 30 percent.

It’s not just retailers. Other sectors are shedding office space as well, which might lead you to wonder what’s going to happen to all that real estate. Well, not to worry, there is one sector of the economy that’s soaking up all that excess capacity.

You guessed it. Technology firms are expanding throughout the country. In New York City, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google have all greatly increased their footprint in the past year.

There is a bit of irony here, that the very people who made it possible for other companies to operate remotely have determined that they want their own employees to gather in person. Apparently they agree with most of the rest of us who run businesses, that there is an intrinsic value to personal interaction and collaboration. Even socializing and camaraderie may have a positive effect on the bottom line.

Most of us also feel that way about education. Prior to the pandemic, multiple studies had shown that online education resulted in poor academic outcomes compared to in-person curricula. Those studies generally compared the major for-profit online schools to traditional public schools, but the COVID-driven public school online initiatives did little to change that perception. Although some self-motivated students with engaged parents onsite have prospered, it appears that the majority have lost ground, and it’s possible that they may never fully recover. Most parents are very anxious for their kids to get back to in-person instruction.

Most, but not all. In an April 11 article entitled “Online Schools are Here to Stay, Even After the Pandemic,” The New York Times explained why some students don’t want to go back to brick-and-mortar education.

Some kids have health issues or developmental problems that make them uncomfortable around other kids, or that simply make it difficult to get to school, stay there all day and get back home. Other kids, probably more than we acknowledge, face discrimination or bullying.

In some cases it may just be a matter of geography. Alaskan schools are fewer and further apart than those in Connecticut, and the weather can be more forbidding. The Anchorage School District will enroll 2,000 students in its one-year-old online school this summer.

Several hundred school districts throughout the country established virtual schools during the pandemic that they plan to continue indefinitely after the virus is gone. According to a study by the RAND Corporation, about 20 percent of school districts either have a permanent online school or plan to start one.

Prior to the pandemic, only about 1 percent of American K-12 students were engaged in fully distant learning. No one knows where the numbers will settle, but it could be several times that. Still a small minority, it will nonetheless represent a lot of kids, a lot of parents, a lot of teachers and a lot of school supplies.

You don’t have any control of the commercial real estate market, nor can you determine the degree to which education will shift to an online model. You can only react to new realities, and so you will.

What you can control are the changes to your personal life. It won’t be long now until restrictions are lifted. You will be able to go to a ballgame or a restaurant or a friend’s home.

Or not. Perhaps you found an electronic version of something that you prefer to the original. Maybe it’s easier, quicker, less expensive, or you just enjoy it. I’m sure there are plenty of people, and not just teenagers, who would rather text someone back and forth than have a face-to-face conversation.

I’m not one of those people. It may seem contradictory, but I am an introvert who enjoys being around people. As much as I can appreciate a good movie on TV, it doesn’t compare to being part of an audience in a darkened theater, transported as a group to another place and time.

I know that many of you would call me “old school” and not consider it a compliment, but that’s okay. I’m not even sure I disagree with you.

I’m just relieved that we will soon have choices again, and I know what mine will be.


You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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