Column: The Parking Lot at the Train Station Tells the Story

By Patricia Chadwick

There was a time, not more than three years ago, when the waitlist to purchase a commuter parking space at the local train station (in my suburb of New York City) was between eighteen and twenty-four months. By 6:15am on any Monday through Friday, the parking lot that clung to both sides of the tracks had not a single empty space. That seventeenth century English proverb had merit: “The early bird gets the worm.” Latecomers had to search for a spot on the barely paved surface at the far ends of the lot, well beyond the platform.

What a far cry from the station parking lot of today. Gone is that early bird advantage. Gone is the crush of suited men and women moving in unison from the platform to the train car, each hoping to avoid having to sit in the unpleasant “middle seat.”

Now, on my regular (every week of so) train trips into Manhattan, at the more leisurely time of 9 or 10 o’clock, I observe that the parking lot is, at best, only 30% full.
We all know the “why” of this metamorphosis. COVID-19 has permanently changed the workplace. I would be willing to gamble that not a single company that uses office space for the preponderance of its employees has returned to the standard, “old-fashioned,” work routine.

Whether willingly or unwillingly, corporations have been obliged to bend, in one way or another, to the will of their employees. Companies that once believed a return to the office was a necessity have, in many (if not most) cases, accepted the reality that the tide has changed in a major way.

Working from home is hardly a new concept. According to a Pew Research Center study that was published a couple of months ago, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 23% of workers whose jobs could be done remotely were working from home. That figure is now 59%. Many more have adopted a hybrid version by coming to the office on an as needed or staggered basis.

In the current environment of rising inflation, the cost savings derived from working from home are a powerful incentive for employees to demand and employers to allow continued support for that emerging model. The all-in costs of a commute are not insignificant and encompasses more than the financial outlay for train, subway and bus fares, parking fees, and taxi or Uber/Lyft trips. They also include the costs of buying lunch while at the office as well as the outlay of childcare expenses for workers with small children.

A second derivative financial benefit for employees who work from home relates to workplace attire. Even if “business casual” is allowed at a Zoom office meeting, there is no telling what is being worn below the waist. It reminds me of those early morning appearances I made for years on CNBC or Fox Business News or Bloomberg. It was particularly amusing to be interviewed by the late Mark Haynes of Squawk Box at 6 am. His blue blazer and slip-over-the-head preset tie belied the pajama bottoms and slippers that were invisible.

It has been interesting to observe how this monumental social change in the workplace—one that has developed with almost lightning speed—has altered the tone at the top of the corporate world over the past year. Giant companies that not so long ago were ardent in their demand that all employees return to the five-day in-the-office work week have accepted, willingly or unwillingly, the reality that they no longer have the power to dictate the rules of the game. The power has shifted from the C-Suite to rank and file employees—a modern-day bloodless “revolution.”

In large measure those companies which have stuck with a “traditional approach” to the workplace geography have been upstaged by “new age” thinking on the part of other major corporations that have embraced the concept that a happy employee is a more productive employee. The flexibility offered by this new breed of corporate leaders is bearing fruit. By supporting the “whole person” concept, those forward-looking corporations are enhancing their ability to attract employees who appreciate the respect they show for the personal needs and wants of diligent employees.

I have spoken to a number of companies that filled important open positions during the pandemic without ever meeting the employee in person. In one case, the firm recruited a total of eight investment professionals over the span of about eighteen months. Virtual interviews were a necessity. Apart from that, the many months’ process was identical to what had been in place before the pandemic. Among the new employees are several who negotiated remaining in their hometowns—as far away as Denver and Los Angeles—while the company is headquartered in New York City.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the emerging workplace environment we are now witnessing and experiencing would have been an impossibility. However, with the onset of the pandemic, we discovered that the billions of dollars invested in technology over the prior decade by myriad industries had laid the foundation for the realization that productive work can take place outside of a traditional office setting.

In this new world, there are both winners and losers. One hundred years ago, buggy whip manufacturers were annihilated by the invasion of the automobile. One could provide endless examples, starting with the invention of the printing press. Such is the nature of vibrant capitalism.

The evident winners today are both employees and those corporations that have the perspecicacity to embrace the new workplace paradigm. The losers come in an array of companies that have for decades benefitted from the “old world” that is fast fading. Street vendors whose livelihood is dependent on the “lunch crowd,” have seen their sales decimated. Apparel companies that cater to “old-fashioned” business attire will need to change their inventory, or be out of business. Perhaps most obviously, the unwanted and unneeded office space in many cities in this country will challenge companies to repurpose millions of square feet of redundant inventory. There is little reason to believe that they will fail in that endeavors.

To quote the title of Sonny Bono’s hit song from 1967, “And the beat goes on.”

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