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.