Seven weeks ago Ivy Cohen, owner of a communications firm, attended her first in-person business event since March 2020: the annual Advertising Week conference at Hudson Yards.
"I was excited. I was relieved. I was anxious," Cohen said.
Keeping with city law, attendees had to show proof of vaccination, and most events took place in new buildings with high ceilings. There were times Cohen could zone in and focus on the presenters or conversation.
Still, other times "suddenly you'd become quite aware you are near a lot of people and think, Oh, please be healthy," Cohen said. "But I was still mostly relieved that this was finally happening."
A recent Crain's reader survey found that many in New York's business world are cautiously venturing out to conferences and networking events, or their desk at the office. But a great deal of economic activity is still taking place in the cloud.
About 40% of the 521 respondents to the Crain's survey said the last business or networking event they attended was in-person. The rest last networked in the virtual realm.
When it comes to working arrangements, readers are evenly split: just over 30% are reporting regularly to the office; 31% are working from home full-time; and 38% are operating in a hybrid model—some days in the office and some days at home.
George Contos, chief executive of YAI, a nonprofit formerly known as the Young Adult Institute, said he's been reporting regularly to the office during the pandemic, in solidarity with the service centers and schools the organization operates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Much of their work cannot be done remotely. But attendance at the nonprofit's Midtown office is optional for administrative staff, and it appears many businesses in his company have yet to return their employees to the office, Contos said.
"From Starbucks to the building lobby to your wait while grabbing lunch—it is all much, much different," he said.
That might remain the case for some time. Only half of readers surveyed—which includes both management and workers—expect their place of business to mandate a return to the office. In the case that they do require a return, 83% of respondents said companies should require vaccines for in-person workers.
Despite the slow office return, New Yorkers are increasingly optimistic about the city's economic recovery. The number of respondents who expect New York to recover to pre-pandemic economic numbers reached 69%, up from 61% in June. But the perceived timeline for that recovery has extended. Last quarter 66% of respondents said the city's economic recovery would be complete sometime after next year. This quarter that number increased to 74%.
The survey findings are consistent with other measurements of economic activity. Foot-traffic data has shown mobility recovering in most neighborhoods outside of Midtown and the Financial District. An October survey by the Partnership for New York City of the employers it represents found only 28% of Manhattan office workers are reporting to their desk regularly, barely budging from August.
Employers have found certain things can be accomplished more easily online, including quick huddles. But employers also have raised concerns about burnout.
"You can see people's eyes start to glaze over in these virtual meetings because there are so many of them now," Contos said.
The 10 employees at Cohen's communications firm operated remotely before the pandemic, but she said her view on what can be accomplished virtually was changed by her experience during the past 20 months.
"It is possible to have deeper relationships with clients online than I would have thought previously," she said.
She has embarked in recent weeks on a "reunion tour," taking walks or meeting for coffee with longtime colleagues she had not seen for nearly two years.
Crain's also surveyed readers on the technology they have adopted during the pandemic. People are filling up the extra time at home reading online and binge-watching Netflix. Four in 10 respondents said they now have more digital subscriptions than at the start of the pandemic. More than 40% of readers reported having four or more separate recurring subscriptions.
LinkedIn was rated as the best social-media platform for keeping up with colleagues, followed by Twitter. Instagram and Facebook tied for third most useful.
When it comes to connectivity itself, Crain's readers report being well-connected. More than 9 in 10 said they have sufficient internet speed and reliability to support working from home. More than three-quarters said things will get even better and agree that 5G will improve their ability to work.
Although there is optimism about emerging tech, there have been lower adoption rates among existing technological breakthroughs. Just 13% of readers have purchased cryptocurrency in the past year, and 82% prefer a MetroCard to the OMNY system when riding the subway.
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