As Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin is urging businesses to bring their employees back to offices in downtown Hartford as much as possible, a new study found that about a third of workers nationally with jobs that can be performed remotely are working exclusively from home.
The study, released Thursday by the Pew Research Center, shows those numbers are down from 43% in January, 2022 and 55% in October, 2020 but the most recent numbers are still well above the 7% before the pandemic.
“We need for you to try to have as many people in the office as possible, as many days as possible,” Bronin said Thursday. “Because one of the biggest threats that we face — and it’s not unique to Hartford but is important in Hartford — that there are thousands and some days, tens of thousands, of people who would normally be in downtown, go to restaurants, go to bars after work or going to retail.”
Bronin’s comments came during the annual mayoral address to the MetroHartford Alliance, the region’s chamber of commerce, attended by more than 100 at downtown’s Dunkin’ Park. In his remarks, Bronin said he understood the pandemic may have changed the nature of work for the long term, meaning for good.
“Anything you do at the margins makes a difference,” Bronin said. “If you are helping to get your teams in three days a week, instead of two days a week, that makes a difference. If you are holding a happy hour for your team on a Thursday evening that will help keep people in Hartford, that makes a difference. I encourage and urge everybody to think about ways you can do that.”
While the Pew study indicated that full-time remote working had fallen off as the pandemic winds down, the survey also found that hybrid work — splitting time between office and home — is on the rise. The study found that 41% of those surveyed preferred a hybrid schedule, up from 35% in January, 2022.
Bronin, who is not running for re-election in November after eight years as mayor, said he realizes bringing workers back to the office may be a challenge.
“I know that there is a lot of pressure by employees to work from home, at least part of the time,” Bronin said. “But I’m convinced that we lose something very real when we shift a little too much toward remote work.”
Bronin said what is lost goes even beyond innovation, spontaneous conversations that can spark new ideas or even mentoring young people to develop the next generation of employees.
“All those things are true,” Bronin said. “But I also think just psychologically, we lose something when we’re not physically together, face-to-face building those relationships.”
David Griggs, the alliance’s chief executive, said the issue is a tough one because it is faced by cities and metro areas around the country.
“The mayor was correct: in that it’s bigger than Hartford,” Griggs said, after Bronin’s address. “The move to pull people back into the office — let’s keep it simple — it’s nationwide because we know it’s nationwide. And our employers have to compete for talent in that nationwide market. Our employers can now hire people in Chicago and not require them to be here so its created a lot of flexibility.”
In Hartford, the pandemic showed just how dependent the downtown economy remains on office workers, even though the city had worked for a decade to add more than 2,000 apartments. The goal was to better balance the residential and office populations in and around the central district, but the loss off office workers — and now their slow return — demonstrates the need for housing to play an even greater role, Bronin and others say.
The reshaping of the workplace also has major employers slashing the amount of office space they will lease in downtown Hartford. That is a concern for both commercial landlords and the city because downtown office towers are a significant portion of Hartford’s tax base. The value of office towers are heavily dependent on leases that draw rents, so the more space that is empty, the less the buildings may be worth.
The decline is office values could shift a heavier tax burden onto other taxpayers in the city, including homeowners.
A recent report from commercial real estate services firm CBRE found that overall office space available for lease was 23%, or 2.2 million square feet, compared with 18% at the end of 2019. But in the 16 downtown office towers considered prime, top-of-the-line locations, available space topped 34%, or 2 million square feet, at the end of 2022, compared with just 21% just before the pandemic.
On Thursday, Bronin said he believes the momentum behind the city’s revitalization that was derailed by the pandemic is returning. But the aftermath of the pandemic and the loss of office workers is now placing even more importance on creating new housing.
Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at email@example.com.