What Hybrid Means to Us
Earlier this year, Next Stage moved into its own dedicated office space. We had previously moved between co-working facilities, but the growth in our team suggested the need for a permanent home.
Having just passed the six-month mark, I can confidently say it was the best decision for the company. We now have a physical manifestation of our values, vision and commitment to working at the intersection of social good.
Our 1,600 sq. ft. space has a couple private offices but is otherwise made up of one large room with furniture configurable for a variety of uses, including several small tables, a standing desk and a couch. We do in-person team meetings on Monday and Friday mornings. The in-office time that follows is filled with 1:1 or team collaboration. Outside of those meetings, the office is available to the team to use as needed.
A hybrid work environment works well for our team. When we aren’t out in the community with our clients, teammates are empowered to decide for themselves where they are best positioned to do their work.
At the heart of it all is trust. We are a small team and I have personally hired each person who works at Next Stage. Believing in the work ethic of those who join our crew is among the most important factors when identifying talent. Encouraging them to find the right mix of in-office and remote engagement is an extension of our values of purpose, collaboration and belonging. It’s just who we are.
We were working this way long before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many into remote or hybrid models. We’ve never had to make a remote or hybrid work announcement. And we’ll never need to make a return to office (RTO) announcement either because we’ve never been an in-office company.
But now companies in America have a decision to make. And the survival of our inner city centers of commerce is at stake.
The ‘Urban Doom Loop’
The headline of a recent Washington Post article caught my attention:
How the ‘urban doom loop’ could pose the next economic threat
A commercial real estate apocalypse particularly in midsize cities could spiral into the broader economy.
Yikes. The article does a really nice job of outlining how companies not renewing their leases for high-priced offices in center city areas creates a domino effect on the rest of the economy. When workers aren’t around, retail businesses close up shop, residents move out of the center city, and tax revenues decline leading to fewer services and eventually fewer residents.
That’s the ‘urban doom loop’ – a suitably horrifying name for an economic trend that has been slowly building since the onset of the pandemic.
In our own city of Charlotte, commercial and residential real estate projects continue to expand in all directions while the Uptown area in the center city is hurting. A Charlotte Observer headline from June noted that one out of every five Uptown office floors sit vacant.
When we talk about corporate social responsibility, we tend to forget the role the private sector plays in placemaking and economic impact. Much the same way we might argue that housing instability is an issue that corporations have an ethical obligation to address, so too is the sustainability of a city’s urban core an issue of intersection. This is particularly true since it is the policies of these companies that are contributing to the challenge.
Once opened, the Pandora’s box of remote employment and hybrid workplaces have not been so easy to put away. Companies and employees have been playing a chess match for several years now, with an uncomfortable détente achieved of some ‘mandatory’ in-office time (typically 2-3 days per week) balanced by a continuation of work-from-home. In some cases, individual managers have authority to determine the efficacy of holding to corporate policies.
The result is office buildings that look more like ghost towns than bustling centers of commerce.
Remaking the Urban Landscape
Something’s gotta give. This trendline has the potential to have lasting impacts and standing pat is not an option. Our conversations with some employers suggest that the long-predicted recession in 2023 was planned to serve as a bully pulpit for curbing work-from-home policies. The threat of layoffs would have made it easier to attract workers willing to go back into their offices. But the recession has yet to come, and waiting around is just prolonging the challenge.
Instead, we are hopeful to see more creative solutions.
In Charlotte, Center City Partners recently launched the Reimagining Vintage Office Design Competition to share ideas to adapt office spaces for more modern uses, to “add a range of additional destinations and economic activities to strengthen Uptown as a regional asset.” It may be strange to think of Charlotte office towers as “vintage,” especially since the vast majority of them are only a few decades old. But when one considers the shiny new buildings being erected in South End, the point is clear.
What RTO means for Social Responsibility
We have an idea – make more spaces for nonprofits in these office buildings and encourage them to directly engage with private sector employers.
As we’ve previously outlined in our Profit & Purpose series, generational change has included increased expectation of finding ‘meaning in the workplace.’ Employees who have traditionally worked in cubicles to drive profitability for shareholders and executives are questioning their life’s purpose. The ‘Great Resignation’ was really the ‘Great Reprioritization’ as early career professionals left roles that they found unfulfilling for careers that aligned with their values.
This is the real urban doom loop that all employers should be tracking, no matter the location of their office buildings. The increased demand of values-alignment has created powerful employee resource groups (ERGs) that encourage community-building. It has also led to more partnerful approaches to social impact efforts.
For many companies, this expression remains too transactional. Employees are less interested in one-off service projects than in ongoing engagement opportunities with causes that are meaningful to them. We have advocated for bringing nonprofits inside the workplace, with lunch-and-learns and hands-on activities that break up the work day.
Guess what colocating nonprofits and companies together also encourages? The return of employees to their workplaces! It is difficult to have meaningful engagement with a cause from the comfort of one’s home office.
Bringing nonprofits and private sector employers together under one roof evolves the strategy of corporate responsibility into something far more partnerful. Desiring to build the STEM workforce of tomorrow? There’s a nonprofit for that. Seeking to demonstrate smart growth strategies in a rapidly changing city? There’s a nonprofit for that too.
Why any nonprofit should be forced to spend hard-won charitable dollars on occupancy in an out-of-the-way office building is beyond me. Not when office buildings sit vacant and employees long for more meaning in the workplace. It’s a win-win-win that makes sense for everyone involved.
Will it solve RTO alone? Of course not. But we need to be thinking about a combination of strategies working collectively instead of hoping for a magic bullet of economic recession to solve this challenge. And this is a strategy we think has significant potential as a part of a larger solution.
We just need to find a company willing to give it a try. Any takers? Reach out and let us know. We’d welcome the chance to work with you to make RTO a win-win-win opportunity for our communities.