Remote Work Is Killing the Hidden Trillion-Dollar Office Economy

Remote Work Is Killing the Hidden Trillion-Dollar Office Economy

From airlines to Starbucks, a massive part of our economy hinges on white-collar workers returning to the office.

Medium, 2020

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Steve LeVine, editor-at-large of Medium, reminds readers of the small businesses that catered to, fed, dressed, entertained and cleaned up after office workers and commuters. Hotels, airlines, dry cleaners, restaurants, upscale clothiers and janitorial firms served that workforce…until it was gone. Some offices may reopen, at half staff, but some firms have canceled their office leases and declared remote work permanent. LeVine finds that airlines, hotels, vendors and urban office centers must lower rents and fees, downsize and re-invent themselves, or die.


An overlooked ecosystem of businesses is suffering: the service firms and people who tended the office workers – who are gone.

In early 2020, COVID-19 forced a mass lockdown of US businesses, sending most office workers home to work remotely. The largely invisible foundation that supports bustling central business districts – the service economy catering to white-collar employees at work – has received little attention. These companies include the dry cleaners, cobblers, pharmacies, gyms, florists and food cart vendors who served the now nearly empty skyscrapers in the quiet city centers. 

Businesses decimated by this retrenchment include the old and new and the rich and poor. Venerable Brooks Brothers and J. Crew filed for protection under the bankruptcy laws. Food delivery companies like Grubhub and UberEats find themselves unnecessary if workers walk from their dens to their kitchens for lunch.

Caffeine and the white-collar worker have been linked inextricably since coffee arrived in early 17th-century Europe. Within a few decades, hundreds of coffeehouses filled London to cater to businesspeople...

About the Author

Steve LeVine is editor-at-large for Medium, reporting on tech, science and demographic issues to interpret today’s turbulence.