As downtown Albany businesses struggle, city looks at future of work-from-home

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13 Investigates continues its look at the future of business in downtown Albany.

On Wednesday, 13 Investigates told the story of an Albany man whose three-generation family business, Emil’s Newsroom Convenience Store, may be a casualty of the disappearing downtown workforce.

The COVID-related mass exodus of both government employees and private sector workers, and the trend toward work-from-home dealt a blow to businesses in downtown Albany, and downtowns across the U.S.  

City officials say they don’t know what the future of downtown Albany businesses will look like. 

“I think the jury is still out,” said Mayor Kathy Sheehan (D – Albany).

Many of the lights are off in downtown Albany office buildings. Sheehan admits she’s still not sure how downtown Albany will emerge.

“We were looking at potentially doing a marketing campaign for our downtown office space, and we’ve kind of taken a step back from that to say, maybe we’d be better off investing in a study around what is the future of that office space, who’s going to be occupying it and what is the future of work,” she said.

As for full occupancy in downtown, and whether the city hopes to get back to that, the mayor said, “I think that we really have to give this more time.”

“So I do expect the pendulum to continue to swing back towards in-person, but where that pendulum stops, I think is still a big unknown,” she said.

Sheehan acknowledges the frustration of businesses that want to see things play out faster, with more certainty. However, she says it’s also a hard time for the city, because there is no crystal ball.

“It’s really important that we understand what we should be expecting five and 10 years down the road, so that we can be making investments now to prevent buildings sitting empty for long periods of time,” Sheehan said, noting how hard it is to plan for the future right now.  

She said state workers might have to report back to the office in some capacity after Labor Day, but she remained unsure whether that would happen.

Timothy Harper of Skidmore College says right now private companies and the state have no choice but to be flexible and allow for work-from-home.

“What’s happening is that employees have a lot more leverage than they have had in recent years, and so what that means is that they have more power to make decisions about their employment,” said Harper, an associate professor of Business and Management.

He explained that downtown businesses are seeing the effects of a tight labor market and a shortage of workers.

“Right now, employees have options. I think the balance will really be challenged when employers say you have to come back in person,” he said.

“Do you think we’re still in this phase coming out of the pandemic where we don’t know yet [whether workers will come back]?” 13 Investigates’ Stella Porter asked.

“I think it’ll be hard for us to go back. So I think it’s going to be a mix,” Harper said.

Harper says Albany is not alone. Downtowns across the country will have to pivot, start offering co-working space and good quality internet where people will want to linger and do their work.

“Companies, especially downtown businesses, have to say, ‘Is there a way for us to attract people that we’ve never attracted?’” he explained.

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“Remember when we had the pandemic and most cities and towns allowed restaurants to extend their outside venues by using sidewalks? So, that was a great innovation. Someone woke up and said, ‘Hey, we can increase our income by using the sidewalk and having this outside venue,’ and so that’s the kind of thinking that has to happen.”

Ironically, he says people working at home are craving time with others while they work.

“People are looking for the social interaction, right? When they’re not in the workplace, they still want that social interaction. So can we build that social interaction combined with technology that produces productivity?” Harper said.

Sheehan says the city has money it can use to help businesses adjust their models. Part of that could come from the $1.5 million still available in pandemic recovery money.