GeekWire: Seattle council president on getting workers back to the office: ‘We have to build those numbers up’

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This story was originally published by GeekWire on March 8, 2024.

When it comes to getting workers back in the office, Seattle City Council President Sara Nelson wants to lead by example.

Nelson was a featured speaker at the annual “State of Downtown” event hosted by the Downtown Seattle Association Thursday afternoon, where more than 1,100 business and civic leaders gathered at the Seattle Convention Center.

Since becoming council president in January, Nelson said each of her fellow councilmembers is back at City Hall working in person each day.

“It’s made all the difference,” she said. “The vibe is totally different. We can be more productive. People are getting to know each other. It’s just a lot more fun.”

Nelson said she’s working on updating the return-to-office policy for the city’s Legislative Department, which includes city council and related staff.

“Even if we never get back to the levels before the pandemic, that doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying and we have to build those numbers up,” Nelson said.

Seattle is still near the bottom of a list ranking U.S. cities on downtown recovery, as measured by comparing pre-pandemic smartphone location data in 2019 to current levels.

In January, there were more than 80,000 daily workers on average in downtown Seattle — a 13% increase from the same period last year, according to DSA. But that’s just 51% of pre-pandemic levels.

Office vacancy rates in downtown Seattle are double compared to 2019.

These trends are driven in part by Seattle’s strength as a technology hub, where many companies headquartered downtown — like F5, Zillow, DocuSign, Qualtrics and others — can more easily rely on remote work.

While some companies are bringing workers back every day, a recent Gallup report found that hybrid work has become the most common style of work for “remote-capable employees.”

The City of Seattle itself has a hybrid work policy, requiring its executive branch employees (city offices and departments) to be in the office at least two days a week, except for workers supporting essential functions or those that have approved alternative arrangements.

PCC Community Markets blamed the lower number of office workers as one reason it closed its downtown grocery store in January that opened in 2022.

DSA President Jon Scholes last year made a more direct plea to get companies bringing their workers back, using Amazon’s return-to-office mandate as a promising example.

But on Thursday, Scholes didn’t mention return-to-office policies in his 30-minute speech. He focused on boosting amenities downtown that can attract visitors to the area from around Seattle and beyond — perhaps signaling that the back-to-office campaign as a tailwind for downtown recovery could be losing steam.

“We need to move from a central business district to a central experience district,” Scholes said.

The city has explored turning some downtown office space into housing and other commercial uses.

The DSA event also featured a panel discussion about public safety and preventing drug overdoses, which were up 46% last year in downtown. Incidents of violent crime downtown fell in 2023 to the lowest level since 2018, according to DSA.

“People aren’t going to come back to work or the retail core or the theater district unless they feel safe on our streets,” Nelson said.