Chronicle: The station car park tells the story

By Patricia Chadwick

There was a time, not more than three years ago, when the waiting list to buy a parking space at the local train station (in my suburb of New York) was between eighteen and twenty-four month. At 6:15 a.m. Monday through Friday, the parking lot that clung to both sides of the tracks didn’t have a single empty space. This 17th century English proverb had merit: “The early bird catches the worm. Latecomers had to seek a place on the barely paved surface at the ends of the field, well beyond the platform.

How far are we from today’s station car park. No more advantage for early risers. Gone is the crush of men and women in suits moving in unison from platform to carriage, each hoping to avoid having to sit in the unpleasant “middle seat”.

Now, on my regular (weekly) train trips to Manhattan, at the quieter hour of 9 or 10 a.m., I observe that the parking lot is, at best, only 30% full.
We all know the “why” of this metamorphosis. COVID-19 has permanently changed the workplace. I would bet that no company that uses offices for the preponderance of its employees has reverted to the standard “old fashioned” work routine.

Willingly or not, companies have been forced to bend, in one way or another, to the will of their employees. Companies that once thought a return to the office was a necessity have, in many (if not most) cases, accepted the reality that the tide has changed in major ways.

Working from home is not a new concept. According to a Pew Research Center study published a few months ago, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 23% of workers whose work could be done remotely worked from home. This figure is now 59%. Many others have adopted a hybrid version by coming to the office as needed or staggered.

In today’s rising inflation environment, the cost savings from working from home are a powerful incentive for employees to demand and employers to allow continued support for this emerging model. The overall costs of a ride are not insignificant and encompass more than financial outlays for train, subway, and bus tickets, parking fees, and taxi or Uber/Lyft rides. They also include the cost of purchasing lunch at the office as well as childcare costs for workers with young children.

A second derivative financial benefit for employees who work from home relates to work attire. Even though “business casual” is allowed in a Zoom office meeting, it’s unclear what is worn below the waist. It reminds me of those morning appearances I did for years on CNBC or Fox Business News or Bloomberg. It was especially fun to be interviewed by the late Mark Haynes of Squawk Box at 6am. His blue blazer and predesigned tie over his head belied the pajama bottoms and slippers that were invisible.

It has been interesting to watch how this monumental social change in the workplace, which has unfolded at almost lightning speed, has changed the tone at the top of the corporate world over the past year. Giant corporations that not so long ago ardently demanded that all employees return to the five-day work week in the office have accepted, willingly or not, the reality that they no longer have the power to dictate the rules of the Game. Power has shifted from the C-Suite to the rank-and-file – a modern, bloodless “revolution.”

To a large extent, companies that have retained a “traditional approach” to workplace geography have been overshadowed by “new era” thinking from other large companies that have embraced the concept that a happy employee is a more productive employee. The flexibility offered by this new breed of business leaders is paying off. By supporting the concept of the “whole person,” these forward-looking companies improve their ability to attract employees who appreciate the respect they show for the personal needs and desires of diligent employees.

I’ve spoken to a number of companies that have filled large vacancies during the pandemic without ever meeting the employee in person. In one case, the firm recruited a total of eight investment professionals over a period of approximately eighteen months. Virtual interviews were a necessity. Other than that, the months-long process was identical to what was in place before the pandemic. Among the new hires, several have negotiated to stay in their hometowns, as far away as Denver and Los Angeles, while the company is headquartered in New York.

There was a time in the not too distant past when the emergent work environment we are witnessing and living in now would have been an impossibility. However, with the onset of the pandemic, we discovered that the billions of dollars invested in technology over the previous decade by a myriad of industries had laid the groundwork for the realization that productive work can take place online. outside of a traditional office environment.

In this new world, there are winners and losers. A hundred years ago, buggy whip makers were wiped out by the invasion of the automobile. One could give innumerable examples, beginning with the invention of the printing press. Such is the nature of dynamic capitalism.

The clear winners today are both employees and companies who have the foresight to embrace the new workplace paradigm. The losers come from a range of companies that have profited for decades from the rapidly fading “old world”. Street vendors whose livelihoods depend on the “lunch crowd” have seen their sales decimated. Apparel companies that offer “old-fashioned” business attire will have to change their inventory or close their doors. Perhaps most obviously, unwanted and unnecessary office space in many cities across this country will challenge companies to reallocate millions of square feet of redundant inventory. There is little reason to believe that they will fail in this endeavor.

To quote the title of Sonny Bono’s 1967 hit song, “And the Beat Goes On”.

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James H. Wright