Weekly Editorial

Where Are Workers Going TO return To Work?

Written By Rob Kirkbride, Write Office • August 29, 2022

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For more than two years, the office furniture industry — and more broadly, the world — has argued over how, when and if workers would return to the office. As we move farther from the pandemic, while still working out the details of how the workplace has changed, it seems to me we were asking the wrong questions. Instead of sweating over how, when and if, maybe we should focus on a different question all together. Maybe what we should be asking is: Where are workers going to return to work? The answer, increasingly, seems to be the suburbs.

The exodus from dense city centers to the suburbs is one of the most profound changes that emerged from the pandemic and that is going to change the way all of you sell office furniture and change the product mix as well. Is that good or bad? A little bit of both, 

if you ask me. Many dealers and manufacturers have focused on selling in densely packed urban areas and many have moved to urban areas to be closer to their customers, which means you might be physically farther away from them. On the other hand, suburban offices tend to be larger with more square footage (and potentially more furniture).

The suburban shift has been significant. Smaller and suburban places drew most of the population growth in the first pandemic year, between mid-2020 and mid-2021, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released in May. Suburban cities in the West and South saw explosive growth.

According to Pew Charitable Trusts, Georgetown, Texas, about 25 miles from Austin, grew by more than 7,000 residents in a single year, a rate of 10.5% for the city of 75,000. Its neighbor Leander grew almost as fast, increasing 10.1% or more than 6,000 people. Also growing more than 5% in a single year: the Phoenix, Arizona, suburbs of Queen Creek, Buckeye, Casa Grande, Maricopa and Goodyear; the Texas city of New Braunfels near San Antonio; the Florida cities of Fort Myers, North Port City and Port St. Lucie; Tennessee’s Spring Hill City; and Idaho’s Meridian, Caldwell and Nampa.

More than half of the nation’s 15 largest cities lost population as people fled high-density housing areas. That trend was led by New York City, which by dropped 305,000 people, followed by Chicago (-45,000), Los Angeles (-41,000) and San Jose, California (-27,000). The largest gainers among big cities were San Antonio, up almost 14,000, as well as Phoenix and Fort Worth (each up about 13,000). 

It’s not surprising that people working from home, many of whom live in the suburbs, would want to work a little closer to where they live. Many forced to work at home during the pandemic found that they appreciated the extra time not spent commuting (30 minutes to 3 hours, on average). They also saved on gas, parking or public transportation fares. 

That does not mean all of them want to continue working from home. Suburbanites have the same distracting children, barking dogs and slow wifi as their city slicker friends. And they crave the collaboration and friendships they have at work. Many of these suburban-dwelling workers want an office, they just don’t want one in the heart of the city. 

According to Pew, the trend is most striking in higher-income inner suburbs, where more residents have computer-centric jobs suited to remote work and money to spare. 

Again, this isn’t bad news for the industry, but it will change your area of focus and the way you sell furniture

“Developers say they’re not certain how long the shift from office to home will last,” according to Pew. “Many say they expect employers will take several years to reconsider their office space needs as leases expire and they determine how often workers need to appear in person. The timing, experts say, also will depend on the emergence of new variants and when a looser labor market might give workers less say in where they log on.”

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