City Hall is a lonesome place. Walking through the lobby at Seattle City Hall is a lot like visiting a mausoleum. If it weren’t for City Grind Espresso, the coffee stand tucked into a niche near the elevators, you’d swear the place had been abandoned.
The seven-story building occupies a full city block on Fifth Avenue between James and Cherry and is home to the mayor’s Seventh Floor offices and to City Council chambers on Second. A handful of city departments like the city law offices are located on intervening floors.
But while Mayor Bruce Harrell shows up in person weekdays along with most of his office staff, the rest of the building is almost silent. Take the spacious Council Chambers where today rows of mostly empty seats face an elevated dais with seats for the city’s nine councilmembers. You seldom see more than three councilmembers warming those nine seats, even during full council meetings.
The other councilmembers, unless they’ve been excused, answer “present” when called. They are attending remotely. If you’ve tuned to Channel 21, you can see them seated amid books and art objects at home. Also on Channel 21, you can listen to public comments prior to councilmembers’ votes on the agenda.
Unless there is a volatile issue like caste discrimination at stake, there are few in-person comments. Usually there also are a handful of remote comments, punctuated by
admonitions for commentators to “please unmute.” It’s difficult to feel that attention is paid to remarks from the public.
Councilmembers’ offices, located on that same floor, are often deserted. Most councilmembers seldom keep office hours there, not unless they’ve scheduled the occasional meeting. The same is true of the councilmembers’ staff. Once again, it seems much city business is taking place remotely and out of sight.
It is certainly understandable why Councilmembers went remote during the pandemic. But
after three full years, that emergency is mostly over and mask wearing is no longer required even in medical settings. It’s difficult to justify abandonment of City Hall’s Second Floor at a time when many are hoping for the return of “normal.”
That hoped-for normalcy seemed closer on Feb. 17 when Amazon CEO Andy Jassy shared a
lengthy memo sent to Amazon employees around the world. He concluded saying that Amazon employees – with minor exceptions — would return to the office three days a week May 1.
Jassy’s memo cited arguments for ending much remote work. He said assessment teams had observed many flavors of hybrid work and had formed conclusions. To summarize what they found:
It is easier to learn “when we are in the office together most of the time and surrounded
by our colleagues.” Collaborating and inventing is easier in person. Riffing off one another’s ideas happens more frequently. It is easier to ask ad-hoc questions while on the way to lunch, in the elevator, or in a hallway. There is something about being face-to-face with someone, looking them in the eye, that bonds people. Teams tend to find ways to work through complex trade-offs faster when they get together and map it out in a room.
Finally, learning from one another is easier in person. Being able to walk a few feet to someone’s space is much easier than Chiming or Slacking them. This apprenticeship-and-learning model is the reason a lot of companies have returned to the office.
Jassy’s edict was welcome news for those who want to rebuild center cities. No one was any more enthused than Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell who praised the directive in his State of the City message, calling Amazon’s return to in-person work “a great thing.” Other local leaders have echoed that sentiment. Downtown Seattle Association’s Jon Scholes described Amazon’s decision as “a flywheel effort.” Across the lake, Bellevue Chamber President Joe Fain recognized the move as “extraordinary for the health of downtown.” Already other tech companies are beginning to follow Amazon’s lead with return to the office directives.
The question now is whether Amazon’s return will set an example for city government. To his credit, Mayor Harrell last year attempted to get city workers working remotely back in the office two days a week. He argued that in-person work is key to collaboration, communication, and relationship building and “will allow us to build One Seattle,” his vision of city unity.
But at that time Harrell faced instant push back from unions. He admitted he’d “run into a mutiny.” As the Seattle Times reported, hundreds of the city workers working remotely were ready to quit over his directive. Those employees had embraced hybrid options; they weren’t ready to return and were reluctant to undertake the commute to city offices. There were veiled suspicions the mayor’s directive was less about productivity than repopulating the downtown business district.
Not to be overlooked amid any push to return to normalcy are the multiple city unions. Working conditions typically are subject to bargaining. These are the same unions that three years ago negotiated contract language allowing workers to perform tasks remotely and keep the city running. It will be surprising if city unions don’t insist on input into any changed working conditions.
In addition, there may be a different approach to return-to-the-office from individual
councilmembers. As a separate branch of government, the City Council is independent of the mayor’s administrative decisions. However, seven council positions are up for election in the fall and voters will want to know if their representatives plan to show up in person.
Seems to me that the mayor and other topsiders should insist that their non-union staffs need to return to the office, setting an example and inducing unionized workers to push for an office return. Or are the managers too worried about defying the unions?
Agreed with David and sometimes you frame the issue – as Jean has done – and take the risk of directing employees to show up, along the lines of Amazons policy framework.
So if there is resistance – and you feel your legal argument has merit – you ask the Courts to order the return.
The public is with the Amazon approach.
Either way -win or lose in Court – you win with the public.
It’s a metaphor. Not unlike the giant hole just west of the new City Hall building that’s been there for years.
These public employees, with their extremely generous salaries and benefits, are paid by taxpayers, many of whom are really struggling. And we aren’t the ones working 6-figure salaries at Amazon. We are the ones on the downhill side of the Seattle median $112,000 household income. The resentment I feel towards the City Councilmembers and their staff is in direct proportion to the really bad policies they have, and continue to, promote. Don’t want to work? Resign or get fired in August. Don’t expect to make it through the Primary.
This is ridiculous.The old adage, “Showing up is half the battle” should be taken literally. The City needs workers, but it doesn’t need workers who refuse to accept reasonable rules for continued employment.
The pandemic-era shutdowns gave workers and management a chance to learn whether and under what terms Work-from-home can be applied to staff positions which normally take place in an office or other workspace. The fact that employers are now far more willing to accept hybrid arrangements is a big step forward — a plus for workers and better for the environment (e.g. less commuter traffic) — but bosses still want to see people working in offices at least part of the time. The purpose of work is not simply to make workers happy, it is to get work done in an efficient and business-like manner.
If union leadership is willing to take responsibility for getting results from their members (i.e. delivering work output at a level acceptable to management) and can keep rank and file in line with their recommendations for work rules — so many days in office versus WFH, for the various staff positions — Mayor Harrell should negotiate with them and to work out a staffing plan agreeable to all.
If union leadership is unable or unwilling to work with the Mayor’s office in getting back in the office, then Harrell should call their bluff: agree to come to work as directed or find employment elsewhere (and, by the way, “Welcome to the real world!”
I am afraid this situation may be unresolvable without a lockout or a strike, as Harrell has already backed down from his demand once. When the crew threatens to “mutiny”, the captain’s to demonstrate firm resolve, tempered with a willingness to consider making some accommodations once the crew return to their posts.
Who knows how many city employees there are, but anyone would be hard-pressed to say the city is under-staffed. If some employees quit due to work at the office requirements, then so be it. In all likelihood, resignations from the high paid, high benefit jobs will be minimal.
The transition continues from what was to what will or may be. We know what will not be: the way it was. There is increasing evidence that Tue, Wed, Thurs, are showing signs of being “days at the office”, both on the orders of management and voluntarily. Forcing people back to work under court orders is not a viable solution unless you want to create a toxic work environment. Learning to manage a flexible “new normal” is what managers must learn. The experience is too new to find help in business schools that are studying the new phenomenon. No books to go to, but lots of anecdotal evidence of solutions that work from not at all to fairly well. City Hall is its own challenge which leads to the conclusion, and the hope, that the bureaucracy, so often derided, but more competent than given credit, will find a way to normalize the new normal.
No City employees in the office is consistent with no City employee directory.
You do realize that there is no directory of City employees online (much less a printed one).
I am so tired of attempting to contact anyone in government. Virtually no one answers the phone (with some welcome exceptions recently in Olympia!) and so all I can do is leave messages in robotic voicemail….. and there is rarely if ever a reply. Allowing this kind of remote-work kiss-off of the public is the best way I can think of to further erode the public’s trust in government. If city employees want to work at home they should accept less pay, perhaps 3 hours less per day to account for forgone commuting and wardrobe expense.
It’s because of the disenchantment with working, period. “Scary Sundays” brought on by the dread of returning to work lead to “Bare Minimum Mondays” where meetings and launches of tough work projects are disallowed. Maybe the City staff are in the midst of Quiet Quitting?
Jean, Thanks for raising this issue.
Add the empty King County offices and we have a lot of square footage for temporary homeless shelter.
And to think, Sound Transit is considering shifting the planned location of its 2nd tunnel station, unwanted in the ID, north to the epicenter of this governmental emptiness.