Editorial: Public access, impact must factor into city’s return-to-office decision

Portlandia Statue

The Portlandia statue sits outside the Portland Building downtown, which houses several city operations. Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian


People like working from home. That was the highly unsurprising takeaway from a survey of more than 3,400 Portland city workers when asked about returning to their offices. Like many across the country, city employees have enjoyed the convenience and flexibility that working from home or other remote locations­ provides. Employers’ broad embrace of remote work has been one of the very few silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the survey, employees – at least those who were able to work from home – noted the money they’re saving by not parking downtown, the ability to care for their children in the event of sickness and the time saved by not having to commute. In fact, the transition has been so positive that one-third of surveyed employees currently in “hybrid” schedules said they would seek employment elsewhere if required to come into the office more than one day a week – the current minimum. The segment of responders who said they would look for other work shot up to nearly two-thirds when asked if the city were to require coming in more than two times a week.

City officials have not made any announcements regarding a mass return to the office, saying they are spending the summer evaluating the hybrid model. And certainly, supporting workers to ensure their health, satisfaction and job success must always be part of the calculus for any employer, with today’s tight labor market giving real meaning to employees’ warnings of looking elsewhere. But even so, such preferences cannot be the only considerations, especially for the city of Portland, which has an unparalleled responsibility to consider public access and public impact in how it operates.

One key question missing from the discussion so far: How well is the hybrid model serving the public? Is the lack of workers on hand affecting Portlanders’ ability to apply for permits, file complaints, seek information or otherwise access city services in a timely manner?

Such questions were outside the scope of the survey, which focused on employees’ views, rather than an independent analysis. But that must be part of the decision-making. Currently, many city services are available only online or by phone. Meetings and hearings are held remotely over Microsoft Teams, requiring participants to have a computer or a smartphone to view the proceedings or share files. That may work fine for someone with a computer, a reliable Internet connection and the familiarity with technology and language to participate, but it leaves behind many who lack such access.

In the survey, several employees objected to the idea that employees would be brought back to the office to help revitalize downtown. As one survey responder noted, “I supervise three employees and to the extent they spend any money downtown on workdays (apart from parking), the dollar amount is minuscule compared to the psychological toll they will experience if told to report in-person more than one day per week, when doing so would not help them do their jobs any better.”

While additional spending at area shops or delis or the weekly farmer’s market is important, bringing employees back to the office – starting with three or four days each week – can help boost our civic health. It’s a sign to other employers that the city as an entity is invested in the vitality and longevity of downtown and may encourage them to bring their employees back as well. It shows support for our arts and cultural institutions that have struggled throughout the pandemic. And it connects us with people whose paths we might not otherwise cross, enhancing a solidarity and familiarity that gets lost when we retreat to our homes and neighborhoods.

That social connection is important for people to do their jobs effectively – being physically in the room with someone obviously eases collaboration. But it’s also easier to feel like you’re part of a greater enterprise when you can get coffee, share a joke or engage in the water-cooler conversation that used to mark the office culture. It reaffirms the reason you’re there in the first place – to support a mission of serving the hundreds of thousands of residents who live here, love the city and want to make it better.

City officials must think strategically and supportively in developing their back-to-office strategy, from helping cover the cost of commuting and parking to ensuring some level of flexibility for employees. But the city – and its employees – must also keep the mission of city government front and center.

-The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board

Oregonian editorials
Editorials reflect the collective opinion of The Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board, which operates independently of the newsroom. Members of the editorial board are Therese Bottomly, Laura Gunderson, Helen Jung and John Maher.
Members of the board meet regularly to determine our institutional stance on issues of the day. We publish editorials when we believe our unique perspective can lend clarity and influence an upcoming decision of great public interest. Editorials are opinion pieces and therefore different from news articles.
To respond to this editorial, submit an OpEd or a letter to the editor.
If you have questions about the opinion section, email Helen Jung, opinion editor, or call 503-294-7621.