The new executive director of Edmonton’s Downtown Business Association is pleading with companies to think long-term before permanently shifting to working remotely — and either downsizing or eliminating their downtown office spaces.
Puneeta McBryan acknowledges it’s been a difficult time for business owners.
“I understand that it’s a huge strain on businesses, having to carry that load financially, paying for office space that they’re not able to use,” she said.
“I get it, but now is not the time to be making long-term decisions based on the pandemic circumstances.”
McBryan is optimistic Edmonton is approaching a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.
“We’re thinking of this as an elastic,” she said. “It’s straining and it’s stretching — it’s out pretty far and it has been for 10 months — but we’re pretty confident it’s about to bounce back.”
McBryan said even if one major employer downtown pulls out, it could have a significant impact on other businesses, including retail stores, restaurants and entertainment spaces — many of which rely on business from the 70,000 people that normally work in the core.
“Who’s here matters and we all play a role in a vibrant, connected and economically prosperous downtown,” she said.
Justin Archer is a partner at Berlin Communications. He said the company set up shop downtown intentionally, to be close to the hustle and bustle.
“104 Street really had the kind of energy and momentum and enthusiasm that we wanted to be part of, and had the vibe we were going for,” he said.
But during the pandemic, Archer compared the streets of downtown to a scene from a wild west movie, where tumbleweeds roll through town.
“The restaurants aren’t open, there’s no street activity, my colleagues aren’t here, my clients aren’t here,” he said. “It just doesn’t have that same vitality that we know and love from downtown Edmonton.”
Archer said Berlin has been fortunate to maintain most of its business through the pandemic, but both customers and his co-workers have been working from home since March.
“Normally, you’d have people in all these desks, people in all these offices,” he said.
Pre-pandemic, Archer said he was thinking about expanding the company’s footprint, but now, he’s happy he didn’t. Sitting alone in a 3,000 square foot empty office every day got him thinking.
“We can afford the rent, it’s not crushing us, but you just kind of look at — every month — that check going out the door,” he explained.
“I’m just kind of going, ‘Do we need to be doing this?’ And I think it’s a question a lot of people are going to ask themselves.”
Meanwhile, at Zag, an advertising and marketing firm, CEO Alyson Hodson said changes will happen but leaving isn’t one of them
“We are, very likely, going to change the way we do things,” she said. “That might mean additional flexibility, that might mean different office hours, it might mean different ways of coming together. But to completely abandon our space is not something that is even close to being on the radar.”
Hodson both lives and works in the downtown core. She said her and her team often find inspiration while out for lunch or on a coffee run.
“As a creative business, it’s really important for us to have meaningful collisions that just happen when you’re working around each other every day,” she said. “It’s very difficult sometimes to be creative on a one-hour Zoom call.”
With the economic challenges, Hodson said she understands where other companies are coming from when looking at rent as part of the bottom line.
“We actually looked at subleasing our office space to business owners that maybe needed that — needed a reduced rent — so that would take some of our costs away.”
For now though, these business owners are waiting and watching — paying attention to each update from the province about COVID-19 cases and the vaccine rollout — as their teams continue working from home.
“My best-case scenario is eight months from now, you come back and stand in this office and you don’t see all these empty chairs and plants that probably need a little watering,” Archer said. “You see a bustling hub of activity. But who knows?”