Jodi’s Journal: Downtown is key to COVID recovery

June 21, 2020

Normally, an above-average, sunny weather day in April would have been all it took to lift my spirits.

But I won’t soon forget how I felt one similar April afternoon a few weeks ago, after the sun lured me away from my desk for a walk along Phillips Avenue.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I tried to give myself a pep talk along the way, but there was no escaping the emptiness and the mark it left on me that day.

Stores were locked when typically doors would have been flung open to welcome customers.

Normally sought-after Phillips Avenue parking spots sat waiting for someone to need them.

I walked the busiest blocks and barely saw a soul. I remember waving to the Journey construction crews working outside on the State Theatre and reminding myself one day it, like hopefully everything on the street, would reopen.

In recent weeks – and especially this past week – the office workers who typically populate our downtown between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. have come back.

But that, too, is going to be a process.

From my desk, I look straight at the office building for Experity, formerly DocuTap, where beore mid-March approximately 185 people worked.

Companywide, the business has gone from 12 percent of its workforce working remotely to more than 96 percent.

“We felt it was the right thing to do keep our team members safe and healthy and continue to deliver exceptional service to our clients without worrying about an outbreak within one of our office locations,” chief people officer Jennifer Wood wrote in response to my questions about how they’re approaching returning to the office.

There’s a team assessing modifications that will have to be made – common adjustments we’ve already seen in other offices – like sanitizer stations, establishing traffic patterns for people moving through the office, distancing between workstations and evaluating the use of face masks and travel.

Part of the return timeline will be determined by the availability of sanitizer and other cleaners, she said, while adding:

“Our key performance indicators, KPIs, show that working remotely is working, so there’s no reason for us to rush back in to the office and possibly put our team members and clients at risk.”

The company anticipates allowing small numbers of employees to return on a voluntary basis in the next 60 days, or they may be requested to return at any time if performance is suffering or there’s a special need. None of those has happened yet.

“Until a vaccine or reliable antibody test is readily available, we most likely will not be returning in large numbers to the office,” Wood said.

Wow. Who knows when that ultimately will be. And she’s not alone.

I spoke with multiple downtown office users in the past few weeks, and few were able to put a date on when their entire workforce would be back in the office. Generally, those with a broader national presence are slower to bring people back while those with more local decision-making seem to be returning first.

But it’s not going to look anything like normal for a while downtown, I’m afraid.

That has significant repercussions for other businesses – the restaurants and bars that rely on the lunch and happy hour crowds, the hotels hosting business travelers meeting in the area and the retailers that experience some sales as downtown workers pop in over a lunch hour or after work.

So in the short term, we need to be creative in finding new ways to support our downtown and its businesses – because in the long term, it’s going to be a key for how Sioux Falls can emerge as a city of choice for residents and businesses.

Who know what the office of the future will look like. There are predictions that companies will allow some form of remote work indefinitely and that offices will be redesigned to allow more square footage per person.

I think most decision-makers don’t feel they’re in a place where they can say that yet.

At Experity, “personally, I would much rather be in the office,” Wood said. “It’s been very isolating – especially when taking social distancing precautions in my personal life as well. Many of us are spending more time in meetings, which is leaving less time to do the actual work.”

But some of her colleagues have reported the opposite – feeling more productive and focused.

“We are monitoring our employee engagement levels and, if anything, have seen a slight improvement with team members being at home,” she said, while adding the company is concerned about relationships between team members taking a hit over time.

They’re looking at virtual tools to encourage camaraderie and have started an online peer-to-peer recognition program.

Regardless of how businesses collectively move forward, though, I think there are going to be more avenues than ever for workers to live where they want regardless of where their employer is based.

That presents a fantastic opportunity for a city like Sioux Falls and specifically for a downtown area like we are creating. I think workers in many demographics will still want an urban living feel in a place that’s less prone to public health and safety threats. That’s exactly what Sioux Falls offers, and it’s why we need to continue fostering a favorable environment while this all gets sorted out.

So businesses, if you’re looking for a way to reward your webcam-fatigued workforce, how about giving them an extra hour for lunch and $10 toward a meal or shopping downtown? Or end the day an hour early, and send them there for a likely much-needed beverage?

If you live in the area, think about treating yourself to a downtown staycation. The hotels have never been cleaner, you’ve got plenty of options for outdoor dining, and you’ll feel like you’ve gotten away without leaving town.

As a community, how about we figure out a way to bring more live music downtown in a format that doesn’t encourage large gatherings? I’ve got some ideas there, so stay tuned.

And while we’re being creative, can we please find some way to improve the look of the now nearly finished parking ramp in the middle of downtown? It can’t be that expensive to work with some artists to produce a banner or tapestry to hang over that, can it? If anyone wants to organize an effort to beautify that site, I know some businesses that already have said they would contribute.

Keeping perspective, though, I am beyond grateful that these are the conversations we can now be having around a response to this virus. We’re not managing overrun hospitals and business outbreaks but instead able to look at positioning the community for short- and long-term success.

That’s only going to continue to be the case if we take a responsible, measured approach in reopening. We have to continue implementing strategies to mitigate potential disease spread both because it’s the responsible thing to do and because a considerable number of people won’t begin circulating back into our economy without that.

I think the downtown business community, in particular, is doing a commendable job with that. Businesses – many of them locally owned – have made considerable adjustments and investments for employee and customer safety. So let’s make sure we’re supporting them the best we can along the way. For Sioux Falls to emerge optimally from this pandemic, the heart of the city has to be beating strong.

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Jodi’s Journal: Downtown is key to COVID recovery

As workers are slow to return and businesses need customers, downtown needs support to help position Sioux Falls for the best COVID recovery.

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