NYC office life is finally bouncing back, but there’s still a long way to go

June 9, 2022, 7:46 PM UTC
New Yorkers are making a slow return to the office.
Michael Nagle—Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Naked Cowboy and Patagonia-vested finance bros are roaming the streets of New York City again.

It’s a sign that Midtown Manhattan is back, as the New York Times’ Winnie Hu reported. Home to attractions like the Empire State Building and firms like PwC, Midtown has long been a central tourist and business hub, making it one of the slowest NYC neighborhoods to recover since the pandemic turned the city into a ghost town. While the resurgence is partly due to a steady rebound in tourism, Hu wrote, it’s also a sign that New Yorkers are finally easing back into the office. 

She points to several signs of the worker’s return, such as the 30-plus corporate events Times Square’s Margaritaville Resort hosted in May and a growing lunch crowd at Bryant Park. And the city’s tourism agency, NYC & Company, projects that the number of business travelers to NYC will more than double from 3.9 million in 2021 to 9 million this year. 

It’s a far cry from the city’s days as the epicenter of COVID-19, when Times Square became eerily empty for the first time and the 1.6 million employees in Manhattan’s office sector began working from home. Real estate, unemployment, and the influx of transplants have all sprung back, while office life has lagged behind. A crowded Midtown is the missing piece of economic recovery that NYC needs, but there’s still a long way to go. 

Only 8% of Manhattan office workers are back five days a week, and a meager 38% of employees are in the office on an average weekday, per the Partnership of New York City. And many luxe skyscrapers remain empty: Bloomberg reported that the office vacancy rate in Manhattan was 12.3% in February 2022, an increase from 7.8% two years ago.

It all explains why New York City Mayor Eric Adams has been pushing a full-force return to headquarters, claiming that working from home isn’t economically sustainable.

New Yorkers intend to cut down their time in the office, which could reduce New York’s city-center population by 5% to 10%, Stanford University economics professor Nicholas Bloom said in a conference this spring.

But both he and Harvard University economics professor Edward Glaeser, who joined him at the conference, anticipate that the city will thrive on a new normal of hybrid work. “Cities have been reinventing themselves for thousands of years,” Glaeser said at the conference. “They will get through this. Zoom will not kill the office. Don’t count New York City out.”

Cubicles might still be a little bare, but the more cramped Midtown subway stations signal that NYC is already embracing hybrid work. It’s a reflection of the shift in workplace attitude that could stand as a symbol of the new office normal for the rest of the country.

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