The abrupt closure of offices and workplaces following the COVID-19 outbreak ushered in a new era of remote work for millions of Americans. The pandemic has led corporate America to reevaluate its appetite for commercial real estate. With videotelophony software like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, millions of people are productively working from home and may never return to offices full-time. During the height of the pandemic, smaller, less expensive cities like Austin, Denver, and Nashville experienced an influx of workers using their newfound flexibility to escape major metropolises, becoming hotspots for both startups and established companies. This new wave of worker relocation has encouraged companies to rethink the future of their headquarters.
As firms scout potential locations for their future headquarters, they look beyond the short-term needs of their employees. Companies like Amazon and Google now consult with professional economists to predict the needs of workers thirty years down the road. Some factors are unlikely to change; companies will always look for tax incentives, a talented workforce, and a large airport. Other features, however, are likely to become far more important in coming years.
As older workers approach retirement, Millennials and Gen Z’s are becoming the major players of the job market. Due to the tightening of the U.S. labor market, competition for recruiting and retaining top talent is on the rise. Increasingly, companies are looking to establish their offices in areas that offer lifestyles young professionals desire. With more Americans foregoing childbearing, restaurants, music, and nightlife venues will be major determinants of where childless workers choose to reside. Amid the pandemic’s public health and economic crises, fertility rates continued a downward trend, falling below already record lows. According to a Pew Research Study, 44% of non-parents aged eighteen to forty-nine indicate it is not likely they will have children someday, up from 37% in 2018. Young professionals — especially those without children — want to live in a place where they can use their disposable income on experiences, not just tangible goods. The demand for lively nightlife, music, and restaurant scenes is likely a contributing factor to Austin’s growth, and to the decline of Rustbelt cities in recent years. Cities that actively promote nightlife and culture by cutting red tape or offering small business subsidies can attract talented individuals and the companies looking to hire them.
Companies are now looking for markets with a reasonable cost of living. While young employees may struggle to purchase property in San Francisco or New York, smaller cities like Nashville — where the average for-sale listing price is under $500,000 — offer more affordable housing options for first-time buyers. Even with the rise of hybrid work models, the promise of a financially sustainable lifestyle will continue to be a priority for talent recruitment and retention. Some real estate developers now believe it may not be enough for cities to simply offer companies land and financial incentives to win major headquarter bids. With surging housing costs contributing to rising wages, cities will either need to build more affordable housing or provide tax breaks for firms to offer competitive housing assistance. Last year, Facebook announced plans to break ground on Willow Village, a mixed-use real estate project located near its headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Along with 1,700 apartment units, Willow Village will include a town square, a supermarket, a pharmacy, several cafes, and a 193-room hotel. All the village amenities, including residential units, will be made available to the public as well as company employees.
Transportation & Infrastructure
In booming cities like Nashville, inadequate and outdated infrastructure results in traffic jams and long commutes, leading to countless lost work hours. Part of the solution may lie below the streets. Subway systems and underground shopping centers have proven useful in major metropolises. The potential for subterranean urban planning is vast. Architects in London are turning grout shafts, six-story holes used to mitigate effects of subsidence on buildings, into multipurpose urban spaces. Although relatively narrow, these shafts are structurally sound and have already benefited from the investment of materials and labor. Rather than backfilling them with concrete, architects now believe the spaces can be utilized for parking, storage, day spas, bars, and even recreational facilities like rock climbing walls. In the future, underground tunnels could help lessen commute times while freeing space aboveground for pedestrians and alternative modes of transportation. Similarly, self-driving electric vehicles are projected to become a key transportation method in the coming decades. Corporations will likely be drawn to cities that embrace this new wave of technology. If employees are able to work while they commute, corporations will capitalize on the enhanced productivity. By creating a network of sensors that feed automobiles information on traffic patterns and road closures, cities will be able to safely introduce self-driving vehicles to the public. To avoid a technological lag, city planners should coordinate with tech companies to begin developing the future of urban infrastructure — beyond just charging stations.
Given the intensifying effects of climate change, more companies will look for cities that are well prepared to handle natural disasters. Extreme storms, wildfires, and heatwaves all pose challenges for firms looking to keep their employees safe and their offices open. In the wake of large storms, widespread power outages can cripple businesses for days. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across New York. The inundation zone engulfed nearly 90,000 buildings, leaving two million New Yorkers without power. The hurricane rendered people unable to work and caused an estimated $19 billion in damages. To mitigate the effects of major storms, local municipalities should proactively invest in disaster-proofing their electrical grids.
Additionally, resilience to extreme heat will be essential for maintaining future office productivity. According to a study from Columbia University’s Urban Climate Change Research Network (UCCRN), 1.6 billion people in more than 970 cities will be regularly exposed to temperatures above 95°F by 2050. To mitigate the discomfort of heatwaves, city planners should incorporate urban forests and green roofs, which cool the surrounding environment by offering shade and releasing water through their leaves. Structural designs can also reduce heat inside buildings. The Qingdao University of Science and Technology found trombe walls — heavyweight structures of concrete or stone — can successfully capture solar heat and decrease the internal temperature of buildings.
Architects should also look for innovative ways to limit damage from flooding, especially in coastal areas. The National Ocean Service predicts the sea level along the U.S. coastline will rise 10-12 inches over the next 30 years. Estimates suggest the global economic cost to cities, from rising sea levels and inland flooding, could amount to $1 trillion by 2050. As with other climate hazards, cities will experience sea level rise at different paces. East Coast cities like New York and Miami are witnessing sea level rise two to three times faster than the global average. As the effects of climate change worsen, executives may look to inland cities like Denver to ensure potential office buildings are insulated from sea level rise.
Although fossil fuels still play a major role in cities, it is increasingly apparent that sustainable energy sources are the only option moving forward. Every year, more companies are pledging to reduce net carbon emissions to zero. Access to affordable green energy will be a key driver of headquarter site selection. To meet their pledges of becoming carbon-free by 2030, firms like Google and Microsoft are particularly eager to find alternative electrical sources. Cities that fail to offer a green electrical grid, wind farms, or hydroelectric power will face a disadvantage when competing for large corporate office spaces. Municipal implementation of urban renewable energy strategies is becoming more imperative. Local governments should work with experts not only on switching energy sources, but also to make sure the transition is cost effective, sustainable, and beneficial for development. In 2015, Aspen, Colorado reached a 100% renewable electrical profile, inspiring cities around the world to make use of 100% clean energy. According to the United Nations, both Munich and Copenhagen are on track to meet their goal of carbon-neutrality by 2025.
Corporate office preferences are changing once again. In hopes of keeping young employees happy, businesses are seeking cities with abundant urban amenities and a vibrant nightlife. High-quality public schools and parks will always be imperative when attracting corporate professionals; however, with more adults choosing not to have children, a city’s cultural offerings are becoming increasingly important. Local governments should focus on cultivating a small business-friendly atmosphere where lively restaurants, concert venues, and nightlife thrive.
New and affordable housing is a fundamental component of a city’s attractiveness. Young people are frustrated with the exorbitant property prices in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. With advanced videotelephony software like Zoom, firms no longer need to locate in expensive metropolitan areas. Smaller, more affordable cities like Nashville and Denver are becoming increasingly popular for companies and employees alike. When looking to attract corporate office bids, local governments should enact buyer-friendly zoning ordinances and offer tax breaks for residential construction. Investment in tech-friendly transportation infrastructure will also attract corporations. If city officials preemptively collaborate with tech companies to anticipate the needs of future transportation methods like electric, self-driving cars, their municipalities will benefit substantially when these vehicles are made widely available.
As global warming worsens storms, wildfires, and heatwaves, more companies will likely look for locations that are prepared for natural disasters and offer green energy. In the face of climate change, firms want to keep their employees safe and their offices open. Cities can attract business growth by demonstrating adaptability to the challenges posed by global warming. With changing family demographics, remote work policies, and weather patterns, stagnant cities can no longer simply meet the needs of their current residents. To remain competitive in the coming decades, cities will need to anticipate and invest in the needs of their future working residents.