The Skeleton in the ‘Office’… The Workplace isn’t Really Dead

Cartoon by Tom Cheney

3CDC’s Steve Leeper started off this week’s morning Courier with the kind of red-hot energy everyone likes to see- and there needs to be more of it. “We’ve got to get this thing moving. We can’t let it sit any longer”, he reported about the new Foundry re-development in Macy’s retired Fountain Square location. At the present, there are few folks in Cincinnati who are willing and have the confidence to take on three deep-pocket mortgages, especially for an office space development.

In the early stages of the pandemic, upper management had only one thing in mind: survive. And for the corporate world, survival means cutting costs down to the bone. The City of Cincinnati and its families, the mom and pop shops, major corporations and all in between, are running on fumes moving into Q4. Continuously changing data has myself and many believing that one day in ‘COVID-time’ is more like thirty days in regular time. In effect, office operations across the nation have sat in standstill as health experts teetertotter with the greenlight. While downtown employees sit comfortably in Friday-casual clothing on home zoom calls, businesses relying on the hustle and bustle of traffic are taking the hardest-hit of this COVID-punch.

The ‘two-week quarantine’ celebrated its two-hundred-day birthday this week. In the beginning, work-from-home was a workable solution to the problem at hand. It is not however, a long-term solution for fostering a world leading economy, nor a local economy — Cincinnati’s economy.

Financially, workplace shutdowns have been a devastating setback such that no person remains unaffected by this pandemic. Many argue there has been good in the forced hand played toward technological improvements, but these were always going to change; economics prove that most businesses who fall behind with the times almost always die out.

Brooks Brothers, Sears, and Lord & Taylor are your latest examples this year, of who’s operation accumulate to a whopping five hundred twenty-three consecutive year run. Death did not visit these companies over the dead of the night, rather he’s been patiently waiting in their living rooms for years! It’s obvious why these early market leaders have failed to stay afloat, they remained uninformed, or simply unwilling, to move with radically changing consumer trends. Such as with online platforms shuttering brick and mortar department stores, online technology is now threatening office space operation- unless you let it.

So, why is Steve Leeper now going all in on 175,000 SF of office space budgeted at $50M in the CBD? Why is there a half billion dollars in crane watch development activity throughout the Tri-state? Ask yourself, how could there be a new office tower [180 Walnut] in early development stages down at the Banks?

The answer is simple.

Great real estate will survive anything.

What Leeper has proven to the City of Cincinnati in 16 years of unforgiving work is that death by misadventure, on its occasion, leads to a great awakening, or renaissance. The heart and soul of a city is defined by its urban core and the people that flow through it. Downtown is the heartbeat of the region and its flame will never die out, along with its offices and employees.

The workplace is at its most critical moment in its long history. Façade renovations and general improvements to dated office buildings will not make the cut for long term office strategies nor the tenants who inhabit them. Office space has taken on a new role: fusing people with space and experience. New workplace designs, like the one Leeper is establishing with The Foundry re-development, blend workplace efficiency with an experience. This fusing together of an experience-driven work environment with its employees has become the new lifeline of business operation. Trends show that bullpen style seating and closed offices are less sought after; employees want a workplace destination that is an experience to be a part of, while fostering collaboration and flexibility.

Though the pandemic has put downward pressure on workplaces modeled after 1980 cube farms, the new dynamic workplace is turning heads. Offices are now a tool for recruitment, collaboration, and functionality- centered around a premium experience of being in the workplace. The new work-live-play balance is dominating corporate real estate strategies across the board, and its beneficiaries are those taking note early.