Remote working habits mean downtown DC needs a redo
When Mayor Muriel Bowser was sworn in for her third term at the beginning of the month, she insisted that President Joe Biden “either get most federal workers back to the office most of the time” or allow the district to rezone so other users can revitalize downtown Washington.
As anyone who lives in Washington, D.C., knows, the city’s economy revolves around the federal government. This has meant that the challenges facing Washington post-pandemic are unique in their difficulty — from crime and homelessness to housing shortages and shuttered businesses to half of the federal workforce shifting to remote work.
The mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of workers from the city, more than 48% of the workforce, abruptly changed the city’s economic ecosystem. Restaurants, for example, have shut down at record speeds. Bowser has a difficult job ahead of her to revitalize what was, just before the pandemic, a thriving downtown filled with top eateries, theater, shopping, and museums.
The pandemic taught everyone a great deal about health, community, learning, and working — all of which should be factored into the next stage of urban planning and renewal. The fact is, the pandemic forced a rethink of where and how we work. Moving past the pandemic shouldn’t mean we have to pick back up right where we left off.
Bowser is correct in thinking about how the district might transform existing federal buildings into more meaningful spaces to enable a healthier blend of work and life — including more open workspace, retail, parks, and green space, as well as residential housing. For most workers in 2020, the work-from-home model had yet to be refined. Parents and children were often fighting for workspace, Wi-Fi, and quiet time. But by 2021, researchers saw the landscape shift, and they began more closely following these trends. Nearly 60% of those working from home in 2021 reported they were more productive than they expected.
By 2022, hybrid models had become widespread. Career research firm Zippia recently released a report that found that 74% of U.S. companies “are using or plan to implement a permanent hybrid work model.”
The R Street Institute, where we work, is one of those companies. We are located just steps from the White House, with more than 70 employees across the globe. Over our 10-year lifespan, we have learned that it’s hard to attract the best talent when organizations require staff to be located in the Washington metro area. The pandemic allowed more of D.C. to relocate elsewhere, including our staff: Today, 85% of R Street successfully works remotely.
In turn, simply turning back the clock and insisting workers return to the office won’t foster the lasting economic impact the city needs. We have federal office buildings lining Pennsylvania, Constitution, and Independence avenues, and the city is ripe with opportunities to transform the landscape in ways that encourage a more modern work-life experience. Given its unique challenges and advantages, Washington can become a model for the post-pandemic, less office-centric city.