Will Rising Crime Lower Back-to-Office Rates?

From offering flexible arrival times to creating satellite offices, firms look for ways to ease public transit commutes that some employees feel have become unsafe.

In her first week back at the office, Susan looked forward to listening to podcasts on her drive to the office. This enjoyment was quickly replaced by apprehension when she discovered that a homeless encampment had taken hold in the city garage. The idea of taking public transport was worse, given all the news reports about rising crime. She approached her manager for help.

The way in which executives get to work was hardly an issue on corporate leadership’s radar in the days before the pandemic and the Great Resignation. But experts say that as office occupancy ticks up—now at 38% in the 10 largest US cities—so are employee concerns about commuting. Many are discovering that public transportation systems are limiting their schedules because of lower ridership at the same time as many cities are dealing with substantial crime upticks, including a significant increases in murders in New York, Houston, Chicago, and other major cities since 2019. David Vied, global sector leader for Medical Devices & Diagnostics at Korn Ferry, says smart firms are taking notice. “Successful leadership is about what the other person needs,” he says.

Of course, as private entities, corporations have no direct control over crime prevention or public transit issues. But experts say more company leaders are joining city leadership groups. Major cities have consortiums of CEOs that address these types of issues, and membership helps guide policies while also sending we’re-part-of-the-solution messaging to employees and the community alike. Juan Pablo González, sector leader for Professional Services at Korn Ferry, encourages leaders to work with city and state government. “Be part of helping the city get ready for organizations reopening,” he says.

Though it didn’t draw much attention during the age of lockdowns, the commuting landscape has changed substantially in two years. As drivers seek to avoid exposure to COVID-19 and potential safety risks on public transit, car traffic is up. Restaurants have extended their seating onto sidewalk space while homeless encampments are expanding, limiting pedestrian space. Many employees now have low tolerance for plodding through all this to get to work. This puts companies in a difficult situation, experts say, because no benefit can make people feel safe.

To be sure, some suburban commuters are serenely driving onto suburban corporate campuses with nary a hassle. But experts say that in urban or crime-prone areas, companies may ultimately need to consider investing in smaller, so-called satellite offices. “Companies are rethinking their footprints anyway,” says Kristi Drew, global account leader for Financial Services at Korn Ferry. “At less urban locations, they may get bigger groups of employees who are willing to go to the office.”

Indeed, in an age of stubborn labor shortages, satellite offices in small up-and-coming cities may be a great way to compete on talent with top companies whose mother ships are in locales like Manhattan and San Francisco—cities with pricey or arduous lifestyles that deter numerous talented people.. Silicon Valley companies, including Google, are already on this path, signaling a substantial shift away from their longstanding focus on sweeping, amenity-filled campuses. The key, say experts, is to make sure the messaging emphasizes that top performers work at the satellite; otherwise, the perception can be that workers are put out to pasture at non-headquarters locations.

Staggered arrival times are also starting to pop up at some firms. Experts say that both commute-related benefits and arrival-time policies need to meet the individual needs of employees, some of whom may reasonably require carpool arrangements or rideshares while others may need safe places to stash bikes. “Listen to your folks, and put your people’s health and safety first,” says Brian Bloom, vice president of Global Benefits at Korn Ferry.