Fewer cubicles, more collaborative spaces projected for downtowns

Libraries also are seeing an upswing in post-pandemic remote workers.

LANSING — Remote work brought on by the pandemic and projections that some of it will be permanent is reshaping Michigan downtowns and traditional office spaces.

Workers who continue to work from home still are going out into the community and making use of alternative workspaces at coffee shops and libraries, said Richard Florida, an economic analysis and policy professor at the University of Toronto.

Already, collaborative spaces in Michigan libraries are seeing higher traffic as people seek a place to work, said Deborah Mikula, the executive director of the Michigan Library Association.

“What we are seeing is a new love of libraries,” Mikula said. “Libraries are not just about books — they are places for individuals who are working remotely.”

Each of the 396 public library systems in the state has private study rooms available for community members to use, Mikula said. 

More people are taking advantage of these workspaces in centrally located libraries that often are in business districts. Although traffic has increased, libraries around the state are pleased and prepared for this library revival, Mikula said.

The Detroit Regional Chamber estimates 20% of post-pandemic working days will be remote.

And that has a significant impact on downtown real estate.

For those returning to in-person work, office use will evolve, said Christopher Moyer, the director of communications at the Detroit Regional Chamber. 

The chamber is studying the likelihood of moving away from cubicles and toward collaborative spaces, an idea Florida recently endorsed at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

However, Florida said traditional office space is “dead.” He calls for a reimagining of what brings people downtown: in place of central business districts, he envisions that post-pandemic downtowns will instead have what he calls essential connectivity districts.

Long before COVID-19, organizations created authentic and successful downtown community spaces, said Michelle Parkkonen, the managing director of technical assistance programs at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC).

But the pandemic fostered urgency in addressing what downtowns ought to look like, Parkkonen said.

“Those downtown businesses and public spaces can become that third place, that new office for remote workers to alleviate some of those (work-from-home) challenges,” Parkkonen said. 

Michigan Main Street is a program through the MEDC that helps 24 communities revitalize and preserve historic downtowns. It works to create the sort of high vibrancy businesses people want, Parkkonen said.

Even if people move away from traditional office space, they will still need a space to meet and work together, Moyer said.

“We anticipate a continued strong economic recovery in Michigan, which will lead to and engender office spaces being used for increased collaboration, but also the expansion of mixed-use commercial and public spaces,” Moyer said.

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