Only 22% of Manhattan’s major employers plan to require office workers to return in person full time post-pandemic, with about two-thirds expecting a hybrid schedule, according to a recent survey with profound implications for suburbs like Long Island.
The survey, taken by the Partnership for New York City business group between Feb. 24 and March 8, aimed to estimate how long Manhattan's 1 million office personnel would keep working remotely. About half are expected to return to the office by September, but most would have at least some time working remotely. And 9% aren’t expected to return at all.
Even a partial shift to working from home on Long Island instead of commuting into the city would catalyze changes beyond local employment — touching health care, roadways, railroads, eateries, groceries, taxes, shopping and more.
A Long Islander who usually gets a checkup from a doctor on the East Side during a lunch break might find a clinician on the Island. Running errands in SoHo, like for clothing shopping during the workday, might be done instead at a store near home — meaning more tax revenue for Island governments and less for the city.
"A lot of these bedroom communities may not be set up for 24-hour use. They might have been accustomed to people running errands in the city or along the way on their commutes, and so these suburbs will need to build up enough retail and grocery and other services that people can have access to everything they need nearby," said Sarah M. Kaufman, associate director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, about 315,000 Long Islanders commuted into New York City jobs, according to the city government’s planning department, which said about 225,100 are from Nassau County and 89,300 from Suffolk. The bulk went to jobs in Manhattan.
About 22% of the 1.4 million Long Islanders who the state Labor Department said had jobs worked in the city.
In March 2020, as governments around the world began imposing lockdowns to contain the novel coronavirus, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo first ordered nearly all businesses to reduce office occupancy and soon afterward to shut down in-person attendance completely. Office workers were introduced to Zoom and other remote technology for tasks long done mostly or only in the office.
"I’m going to miss the city. It’d be torture," said Carolyn Kane, 65, of Floral Park, the office manager of a real estate company in Midtown South. She now goes into the office five days a week but may not for long.
"It’s very possible that my company will give up an office," she said, "because from a business owner’s point of view … I could do my job from home, which I could, I suppose, if you beefed up all the electronics and everything that you need."
For her entire adult working life — about 40 years — Kane has worked office jobs in New York City: for manufacturing companies, for a baby photographer, and now in real estate.
Before the pandemic, menswear designer Anthony Sanders, 56, of Hicksville, commuted into Manhattan five days a week to the Garment District, where he designed coats in the office of a clothing store.
But in March, he stopped working from the city, and began doing his job at home on Long Island — remotely, by computer. Although he returned to the office in August, it wasn’t and still isn’t full time: Sometimes three or four days, sometimes even fewer.
Working from home, he said, means not going out to lunch in the city, not hitting up a Broadway show after work.
Early Friday evening — his only day last week working from Manhattan — he stood at Penn Station, waiting for the Long Island Rail Road, whose ridership is at 24% of pre-pandemic levels.
"Two days, I’m working at home, one day, you know, I’m coming over here," he said. "For example, today, my work wants to see me today, and the rest of the week — I’m talking about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — I come just only like two days."
Sanders said his office might bring employees back full time, but it’s unclear.
But what's clear: remote working is here to stay beyond New York City and beyond.
On Long Island, more than half of executives in a February survey done for the Long Island Association business group said they have reduced office space in the last year, and 86% said they aren’t expecting to add space back. And 98% said they increased employees’ ability to work from home during the pandemic, the survey found.
"That’s pretty telling," said association president and chief executive Kevin Law. "Remote work will continue."
If more workers stay on Long Island, driving volume and traffic patterns would shift and governments would need to adjust roadway maintenance and design.
"Some of these towns may have set up their infrastructure to accommodate this outpouring of residents towards the city every morning and influx in every evening and may not be prepared to adjust their traffic differently for kind of ’round-the-clock use," said Kaufman of NYU.
Also, with companies now requiring fewer days in the office, a pre-pandemic trend of the oldest millennials — who turn 40 this year — moving to the suburbs is expected to accelerate, albeit to suburban spots that are denser and offer some of the amenities of cities such as mixed-use developments, said Greg Lindsay, director of applied research at NewCities, a Montreal-based think tank that studies urban development.
Some jobs can't go remote — think of first responders like the 36,000 or so NYPD cops, of whom more than a third are Long Islanders, according to the police department — and there is a certain je ne sais quoi that sparks innovation when people are together in person, the sorts of chance encounters in cities impossible on Zoom and from afar, according to Kaufman.
And, said Kaufman, "at some point, people will want to work somewhere else than their basement in Syosset."
"We may see the rise of these coworking spaces in the suburbs for those who don’t want to commute into the city but also don’t want to continue working in the basement, and they will benefit from time spent with other workers," she said, giving the example of WeWork, which offers short-term or even pay-per-use desk space.
Lindsay said he expected city-based companies to rent discrete outposts at WeWork-type places where employees can go to work together and collaborate, a trend already seen in the suburbs of Seattle, Dallas, Atlanta and Nashville.
Kane, the office manager from Floral Park, enjoys her time in the city — going clothing shopping, heading down to Greenwich Village, popping into a restaurant with her husband that draws their eye, hitting up the Met uptown when it’s open late.
She would still come into Manhattan, but, regrettably, probably just on weekends. That adds up to less spent in the city at the places she loves: "They would lose my money, if I worked at home."
With James T. Madore