You’ve heard the doomsday stories that New York City will never be the same. As residents, we’ve seen both sides of the coin: the ghost town-like lockdown and the strikingly busy streets during the reopening. Though we see promising glimpses of life as we once knew it, only 1 in 10 New Yorkers has physically returned to work, one of the lowest in the country.
One of the key factors in guaranteeing the city returns to “normal” is New Yorkers going back to work. And it’s not just about the real estate. It’s the community, coffee breaks, after-work drinks, and dinners with co-workers. We missed that energy over the spring but we’ve seen it come back this summer and fall…but is it enough? Or, on the flip-side, does it feel forced? We spoke to New Yorkers who are back at work and their thoughts on moving forward.
Safety First This Time
The City of New York regulates that employees can return to a work setting at a 50% capacity. It requires employers to conduct employee health screenings, promote physical distancing and mandate face coverings when distancing is not possible. The guidelines also require regular cleanings, hygiene stations, and signs indicating where people can stand, walk, and sit.
Janni Nilsson, the Managing Editor at Resumoo, noticed that it is hard for returning workers to fall back into the workflow right away. She says, “Employees may worry about their own safety with the current situation in mind, or feel anxious about potential changes to their previous work routines. It is a process! It is important for both workers and employers to be sympathetic to this and to allow for an adjustment period.”
Nilsson continues, “As New Yorkers return to work, they are now facing a different work environment than the one they left, something that will require flexibility and patience on both ends. Professionals we have worked with reported feeling more comfortable when provided with written guidelines for what was expected of them, ahead of returning to work, along with what the company in question would do to ensure their safety.”
Rolling with the Punches
The aftermath of the lockdown and the pressures of COVID-19 weigh heavily on the minds of New Yorkers. Fortunately, the City of New York is making emotional well-being a focus. Health care resources, including mental health care, are in place and more widely available.
Remaining positive during this time is important. Abbey Hudetz, the Founder & Creative Director of Oyster Creative, has recently been working at the office three times a week. She says, “Work-life looks drastically different than it did before the quarantine. Being able to pivot on a dime and prioritize has become paramount. At the coworking space, we wear masks at all times, have daily temperature checks, and practice social distancing. Navigating a return to work has not been frictionless, but it has been fruitful. Personally, I have felt dramatic shifts in my productivity levels and overall happiness.”
She’s hopeful but realistic. Hudetz says, “The NYC spirit is far from dead, but I am under no illusions that the city is not in jeopardy of plummeting further into bankruptcy. I try to do my part by staying in the community, giving back where I can, and voting with my dollar to support local business.”
For some, going back to work is not only a beneficial and healthy step but a necessity. Sabrina Moller is the chef and founder of Platedate in New York. Her business model necessitates going into others’ homes. Though she lost business during the initial COVID lockdown, things are picking back up. She explains, “I am so happy that my clients have come back to New York City and are staying. It feels so good to be back in their kitchens making home-cooked, healthy meals again! As all my clients initially left, I truly did not think the city would come back. But they did and I do not see them leaving anytime soon!” Moller explained she is following protocols and feels safe and healthy in their homes.
But Is it Worth It?
Is New York still New York without the liveliness and drama? Sheina Ebrani, of Stefano Navi on 5th Avenue, said she’s back at work. Though she reports an easy commute and residents following the guidelines, her reaction is one of sadness. “The streets don’t feel the same. The train I take is usually at 120% capacity and is now at about 25% capacity. I appreciate that most people are wearing masks, but the streets don’t have the vibrant feel that they once did.”
Ebrani is going as far as to consider other alternatives. She says, “After 45 years, I am pushing my father to call it quits and move offices back to the suburbs. It will take a toll, as the manufacturing facility we use is in New York City, but that is the extent that the landscape has changed.”
Working Remotely For the Foreseeable Future
The City of New York has recommended that employers relax leave policies to encourage staff to stay home. This in turn helps NYC reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and protect the workers who must report to the worksite to perform their job. If being at the worksite is mandatory, the city suggests staggering work times and days to maintain physical distancing. For those who have never had the flexibility to work from home, this is an unexpected opportunity.
Mike Greenberg, a Mythology Writer covering everything from Zeus to Aphrodite, says “There’s no dealing with the New York commute. Goodbye crammed subway! Without a 45-minute commute, I save 90 minutes a day, or almost five hours a week. Instead, I can replace an hour in traffic with a self-care routine: exercise, healthy breakfast, and journaling. The time to incorporate these things has been incredible for me.”
Greenberg explained, “I work in Civil Engineering, and for such an old industry we have adapted surprisingly quickly. Screen sharing works great, Zoom is a lifesaver, and online meetings feel quicker and more efficient than getting everyone into a room together. It’s my understanding that we may never be 100% office again, pandemic or not. It seems like any future plans will revolve around in-person meetings with clients or when crucial for a project. Sounds like we will be downsizing our office to only essential staff and doing much of the work remotely. After years of being told ‘no chance’ when requesting to work from home, I’m more than happy.”
Moving Forward During Reopening
COVID-19 has proven that people can work from home. But should they? We think that the city will rebound and come back fiercer than ever, but how quickly should these decisions be made and at what cost? What we’ve learned is that there really is no right answer right now. Every step is a calculated risk…but someone has to make the first move.