By Arthur Vidro
Office buildings, especially in major cities, are losing tenants.
This is a consequence of the pandemic, which has spurred people to move to towns less densely populated, and businesses to limit the use of big-city office space.
It’s not that skyscrapers are suddenly empty, devoid of all renters. But there is much more unleased space than there was pre-pandemic.
Forced building closures caused companies to maneuver to keep operations going. One change was the work-at-home option. Granted, it’s not suitable for all industries – a dentist must be in the same room as the patient to fill or extract a tooth – but it’s a growing trend.
New York City, headquarters to more corporations than I can count, basically shut down office buildings for a year or so. Can’t fault the city. It was trying to protect everyone from COVID-19.
Let’s pick one New York City company and see the effect.
Dell Magazines has made Manhattan its home for roughly 90 years.
They are a major player in the world of fiction and puzzle magazines. Their set-up was that all salaried staff – mostly editors and production workers – would report to the Manhattan office. (Sales and marketing eventually were an exception, settling into a Connecticut office.) Freelance writers would submit work from wherever they were, and the office staff would format and print out the pages and edit and proofread them, then ship them off to the printer.
At some point, the proofreading function was turned over to freelancers, and the office staff would mail (via the post office) paper pages to proofreaders all around the country. The proofreaders would work on the paper pages, then mail them back (via post office) to the production crew at Manhattan headquarters.
When the pandemic hit, the process changed. Salaried workers no longer ventured to the Manhattan office. Pages of puzzles were no longer printed out and posted to freelance proofreaders. Now the production people – from their homes – transmitted material electronically to the proofreaders, who now were required to print out the pages themselves before marking them up. Those editors or proofreaders who lacked the means or the inclination to work from home had to cease working for Dell. This meant heavier workloads for the folks remaining.
The home-based proofreaders had to deal with unpredictable shortages of home-computer ink. The demand for such ink soared, and even major chains like Staples, Walmart, and Office Max would run out of specific inks. Some proofreaders gave up on hunting for ink and paid local print shops to spit out the pages.
Also, instead of mailing the proofed pages back to company headquarters, the proofreaders now mailed the paper pages directly to the editors at their homes. The home addresses of the editors – most of them in Manhattan – had previously been kept private, but were now sent to the freelance writers and proofreaders.
Other functions were altered too. For instance, payroll was shifted 3,000 miles away, to a specialized company in California.
This coming week, Dell Magazines’ lease for its suite of offices (covering two floors) in downtown Manhattan will expire. Dell chose not to renew the lease. In early spring, a member of management sent the following memo to all concerned parties (and thank you to the freelancer who chose to share it with us):
“The Wall Street office is closing at the end of June. Our lease runs out at that time and, unfortunately, we will not be going back to the office. We will continue to work at home as we have in the past year.
“We have been at 44 Wall Street for five years, so we will miss our New York space. Once most people have been vaccinated and it’s deemed safer, our company will be looking to rent a shared space in New York that we can use for meetings and the like. I do hope so, as I miss seeing my co-workers in person.”
So, at least for Dell Magazines, the need for a big office for all editorial and production work is gone. The desire for such an office might linger, but the office will be replaced by something more akin to a part-time conference room, perhaps containing copy machines and faxes and a coffeemaker. Dell might have to share that space with other companies. It won’t be a place where salaried staff will report daily. By and large, the staff will continue not to see one another.
Dell Magazines is not an isolated case. Similar decisions, and different decisions also resulting in less time spent in an office, are happening all around us. Some companies will continue to rent office space but will cut back greatly on the square footage of such space. The work world is changing.
Arthur Vidro’s “EQMM Goes to College” appears in the May/June 2021 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.