The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed how Downtown Long Beach businesses are viewing their physical office spaces—but it has made hiring and retaining employees a challenge. Still, an annual survey has hinted that a return to normalcy may be on the horizon.

The Downtown Long Beach Alliance on Monday released preliminary findings from its Annual Business Survey, which included input from 250 businesses from Jan. 3 to Feb. 28.

While remote work has become more prevalent during the pandemic, most Downtown businesses still value their physical presence, with 66% of respondents saying they had no plans to change their physical workspace. This included office-based businesses, whose workers are able to work from home more conveniently and often than those in other sectors.

These results could stem, in part, from natural growth patterns. Businesses under a year old reported more plans for increases in space, while older and more established businesses were more likely to indicate they were looking to reduce their spaces.

The desire to keep a physical office space or storefront, though, doesn’t mean businesses aren’t accommodating remote work. DLBA officials believe some tenants are still looking to rent the same spaces while offering remote work through hybrid schedules.

The DLBA itself, for example, is maintaining its office space at 100 W. Broadway while allowing employees to split their schedules between time at home and time in the office.

“It’s flexible but on paper, we are still paying for the same amount of office space in our building,” DLBA Research and Policy Analyst Morris Mills said. “We’re not downsized or anything.”

“If we were to ask about utilization in terms of actual employees going to the office, I would assume it’s probably lower,” Mills added.

Other business concerns haven’t changed much over the course of the pandemic, according to the survey.

“The business community has been consistent over the past 18-24 months on key issues they are facing,” Mills said, “such as hiring and retaining employees, permitting, quality of life and safety.”

When it comes to hiring, the survey tells a similar story to others conducted on a nationwide scale. Only 57% of businesses said they were able to recruit skilled workers “within the Long Beach market,” 4 percentage points lower than in 2020-21 and 2019-20.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses’ March 2022 Jobs Report also showed that the inability to find skilled workers was still the most prevalent issue among the 560 businesses surveyed.

However, that trend could be slowly changing. About 20% of businesses surveyed by the DLBA reported they had more employees than the prior year, up from 12% last year and 17% in 2019-20.

Mills said that while that number is encouraging, it essentially translates to a return to a normal employee base for businesses that had to downsize during the worst points of the pandemic.

“I would say it’s still on the upward curve [and represents] resilience, rather than surpassing anything that [businesses] would have had before,” Mills said. “Small businesses in Downtown appear to be cautiously optimistic as we begin what is expected to be a lengthy recovery period from the economic impacts of the pandemic.”

Full survey results will be included in the DLBA’s Annual Economic Profile, which will be released April 25.

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.