We Need to Return to Work in Our Cities

The pandemic has forced a hard look at the way we work and where we work. And, more and more people are struggling with the hard decisions in front of them.

Tom Nardacci is the owner of Aurelius Coworks, a socially responsible development company based in Troy NY that develops, owns, and operates coworking and flexible office communities in various states and cities

In the days and months after 9/11, there were far fewer people who believed that anyone would ever work again in lower Manhattan then believed it would become a neighborhood that would not only recover and revitalize, but expand exponentially.

In 2019, private sector employment in lower Manhattan surpassed 251,334. The milestone was important because it was the first time the number had surpassed the 247,938 jobs downtown in September, 2001. The recovery of jobs took a long road back, but what these stats don’t show is the rest of the story. Lower Manhattan also dramatically evolved after 2001 and 2002.

People on the outside forget, or maybe never knew, that there was a serious debate about whether it was worth even trying to rebuild after the cleanup of Ground Zero was complete. And there were frank, honest discussions about the near-term environmental hazards swirling and long-term threats from forces unknown. Thankfully, there was a collection of local leaders, smart business people, committed community members, and astute elected officials who collectively decided that it wasn’t enough to clean and rebuild. Lower Manhattan had to remain globally significant, and now an example of resiliency, full of creative thinking and doing.

New residential development, retail and restaurants, tourism all bolstered lower Manhattan’s comeback. Millions of square feet of residential development increased the residential population from 23,000 to 62,000. Thousands of new hotel rooms. Millions of new, recurring visitors. This new diverse focus led the march back to re-attract commercial tenants.

We Face Really Tough Decisions

Today, we all face tough decisions. For some it may truly be the first real hard decision of your life. There will only be a few times that we are forced to make life-altering decisions in succession like we have the past few months. And it will happen even less that society as a whole will face such a widespread crisis. And, unfortunately, the effects of coronavirus will linger for a long time.

Over the past few months, I’ve had way more in-depth conversations than ever before with people trying to figure out their future. And as it relates to my employees, and my own businesses, our work in the short term has been to simplify down to our core missions, double down on existing contracts, focus our work on the things we do best, and be as smart and honest as possible about the crises we face. We still are looking at future opportunities, but now through a new lens of what is actually happening, how companies are responding, and what the need is and will be.

One area where the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in drastic, abrupt change is to the workplace. Families have set up multiple remote workstations throughout the home, for schoolchildren and working parents alike. Some employers are mandating work-from-home until the end of the year or into 2021. Employees are faced with the challenge of finding a reliable, safe and productive work strategy. For some, the transition has been easy. For others, not so much.

Redeveloping Downtowns Have Been Hit Hard

A great blow has been dealt to our cities and many downtowns that have been trying hard to build off the momentum of the return of business and residents over the past decade. This is so evident to me as I watch my friends who own shops and restaurants work harder than ever to hold it together, and sadly, watch some simply close down.

In recent conversations with members of my team to talk about our current challenges, and understanding the need for what we do, we decided that we simply need to go back to the beginning. Why are we doing what we do? And for us, the answer has always been dual. First and foremost, it’s about the people and businesses who want community. The people we serve. And even during New York’s PAUSE and wholly remote times, we successfully maintained community, and I know we did a great service for many of our community members. And, equally as important to us is the impact we have in downtowns we are located.

New Return to Work Options

How does a coworking community fit into the “new norm,” or whatever we are quick to now call everything? Being part of conversations about people’s needs and future plans is common for us. But, back before the pandemic, most people came to us knowing something was missing from their work routine. They’d be able to quickly grasp what our community would offer them and their business. We’ve since been able to watch these individuals thrive in our communities, and we continue to provide them space, flexibility, connectivity and a warm welcome.

Now, disrupted professionals don’t really know where to turn. They know they’re yearning to get some of that normalcy back — especially now as schools reopen. Coworking, while not a new concept, is new to many people forced to make their own decisions on where to work and how to create a productive routine. After hearing the stories from a diversity of professionals and creatives, and learning about the unforeseen issues of the past months, I’m understanding coworking is not a creative option anymore, but a critical solution. The flexibility fits in this moment.

A Social Responsibility

Our communities are also part of the downtown business fabric. Last year we quantified that our members spend over $500,000 annually in downtown restaurants and retail shops. Additionally, 1/3 of our members walk to work, which means they’re also paying rent and other lifestyle expenses around town.

People who can, should come back to work in our cities — smartly, safely. We’re doing all we can to create safe and respectful environments. And establishments around downtown that we all frequent are acting with the same level of seriousness. At the end of the day it’s personal decision. And not everyone will do things right. So people have to protect themselves still.

Also additionally to existing businesses returning, and individual workers needing a safe space outside the home, we feel the need evolving. We’ve recently started to field a density of inquiries from larger companies looking for options to disperse their workforce for the first time. And we want them to know we built these communities for them, too. So, just like I know some people who left lower Manhattan never to return after 2001, I met many more new people who moved in and started to call it home too. That’s on the horizon for our downtowns too.

There is no evergreen answer in all of this that fits everyone’s personal or professional situation. I look at my fellow downtown business owners with the same respect that I held my coworkers in lower Manhattan in the years after 2001. I learned a lot from them, the people who lived through horror and tragedy, returned to clean up, set a course for a brighter future, and stayed to rebuild and recruit others to join in and do their part.

We can’t abandon our cities, and we shouldn’t forfeit the progress we’ve made. The road to recovery is likely a long one. There’s still a lot of fear, and that’s a good thing.

#dwyck

###

About Aurelius Coworks: Aurelius Coworks is a socially responsible company that develops, owns, and operates coworking communities and startup ecosystems in middle markets and downtowns undergoing revitalization. Aurelius Coworks connects its members to the surrounding ecosystem and contributes to the regional economy where its properties are located. The company’s spaces are meticulously built, the communities carefully cultivated, and a focus is placed on infusing the right mix of business and social programming in each community. Current properties include Troy Innovation Garage in Troy, NY, Bull Moose Club in Albany, NY. and Westwey Club in Providence, RI.

Creative firm entrepreneur I Coworking community developer www.aureliuscoworks.com I Believer in small cities & middle markets