Cameron Pierce voluntarily returned to office work last month – in part because he missed his commute.
Pierce, an information technology specialist, enjoys biking the 5.5 miles from his North Irvine home to his workplace at Blizzard Entertainment, traveling on trails that take him past five green parks and along the San Diego Creek. “It’s great exercise,” he says, adding: “I can listen to a podcast, and I’m looking forward to losing some of those pandemic pounds.”
The quality and brevity of most commutes in Irvine is just one of this city’s advantages in attracting white-collar employees back to the office following the work-from-home trend started during the pandemic. Other major perks include the city’s low crime rate, resort-quality office spaces near attractive restaurants and shops, and, not least, a climate conducive to working safely outdoors.
“Irvine is really well positioned right now,” says Richard L. Florida, an author, urban studies expert, and professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. “If office employees have a short commute, grab a coffee, and work out during the day, they’re in the catbird seat … and they won’t mind so much coming back.”
“Employees don’t want to work in their fathers’ offices. They’re looking for the office to be a lot more a part of your life, so if you’re giving them office buildings from the 1950s, with no amenities, they’re going to leave.” – Richard L. Florida, author
While reliable measures of how individual cities are faring are not yet available, Irvine meets the main criteria for getting office workers to return, says Colin Yasukochi, who follows real estate trends as executive director of the CBRE Tech Insights Center. Particularly given that many people are still wary of traveling on crowded buses and subways, he says, “We’re finding that areas that are easier to get to by non-mass-transit means, with less traffic congestion and more suburban locations, have had higher returns to the office.”
That’s promising news for Irvine’s economy, given that many employers believe workers are more productive on-site.
“A lot of companies are finding a skills gap between workers who’ve been coming to the office and those who’ve been staying home,” notes Bill Carpou, CEO of OCTANe, which convenes and supports tech firms in Southern California. “Younger workers especially need to be seen and mentored.”
Employees’ return to on-site work also helps small-business owners – and city tax revenues – since so many businesses, including restaurants, depend on office workers’ spending.
Irvine’s commutes are some of the shortest in Southern California thanks to the city’s Master Plan, which strategically located business districts near residential communities.
But employers will have a still-easier time getting workers back on-site if their offices are comfortable and attractive – and here, too, Irvine has an advantage. For starters, Irvine’s business centers are safer than big-city downtowns.
Irvine’s “downtown” is the family-friendly Irvine Spectrum District, designed to integrate world-class office campuses providing tens of thousands of jobs with upscale apartments and a thriving retail center.
New next-gen office campuses
Irvine’s office campuses have taken design and amenities to the next level. Spectrum Terrace, in the thriving Spectrum technology corridor on Laguna Canyon Road, provides a fitness center with showers, a studio room, and Peloton bikes, a cafe serving fresh SoCal cuisine, outdoor workspaces amid 73 acres that include 2,200 mature trees, and a 1.5-mile jogging trail.
Innovation Office Park, also within Spectrum and just west of I-5, has an open-air cafe, an indoor/outdoor fitness center and electric roll-up doors on offices to let the fresh air in.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Irvine Company, the property owner of these and other Irvine office campuses, ran with the idea of turning office buildings into resort-like destinations. “Employees don’t want to work in their fathers’ offices,” Florida says. “They’re looking for the office to be a lot more a part of your life, so if you’re giving them office buildings from the 1950s, with no amenities, they’re going to leave.”
Venture capitalist Jenny Ta suspects the many amenities in her office building at Jamboree Center help explain why all six of her staff members recently asked her permission to return to the office.
“It was a surprise,” Ta says, “but I guess they really like it here.”