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

Steve LeVine
Marker
Published in
9 min readSep 1, 2020

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Illustration: Mark Wang

For a decade, Carlos Silva has been gluing, nailing, and re-zippering shoes and boots at Stern Shoe Repair, a usually well-trafficked shop just outside the Metro entrance at Union Station in Washington, D.C. On a typical day, he would arrive at 7 a.m. and stay until 8 p.m., serving the crowds of professionals shuttling by on their way to work. But since the near-shutdown of office work and train travel, he has been closing the shop at 4 p.m. “There is no traffic, my friend. The whole station is dead,” says Silva. “Now it’s only a part-time job.”

In the five months since the coronavirus forced a lockdown of U.S. businesses, economists have focused much attention on the devastation of mom-and-pop businesses, brick-and-mortar shops, bars and restaurants, and massive chains. But they have mostly overlooked a looming threat to a vastly larger and more consequential galaxy of businesses, one worth trillions of dollars a year in GDP and revolving around a single, much underappreciated economic actor — the white-collar office worker.

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Steve LeVine
Marker
Writer for

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.