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COVID is No Longer the Driving Factor in the Return to the Office Debate

The return to the office battles between workers and executives have become a tiresome back-and-forth, to say the least. White-collar employees lucky enough to work from home have fought tooth-and-nail for permanent remote work arrangements, and it appears many employees are winning. But one example of this ‘Battle Royale’ that has recently interested me is between AT&T employees and executives at the telecommunications giant.

Workers represented by the Communications Workers of America reportedly agreed to a work-from-home extension with AT&T until the end of March 2023, but they’re saying their employer is forcing people to come back to the office much sooner. Managers have apparently already forced back some departments. Some AT&T workers started a petition demanding their company make remote work a permanent option. As of this writing, nearly 8,000 AT&T employees have signed the petition, and their goal is to get 10,000 signatures.

The clash between AT&T office workers and executives isn’t that remarkable given today’s standards. Many other companies, especially Big Tech firms like Apple and Google, have been going through the same thing for a while. What interested me was the emphasis the AT&T employee petition put on COVID for making remote work permanent. The petition talks about many reasons why working from home should be permanent, but it also says, “WFH provided a safer, more convenient work environment and minimized the spread of COVID-19 among the workforce. Production and attendance rates are both ways up. WFH was a necessary adjustment that has proven tremendously popular in what continues to be uncertain times.”

While the AT&T petition mentions the coronavirus as a reason for continued remote work, it’s questionable how much of a concern the pandemic still is in the return to the office debate. We do live in uncertain times, both politically and economically, but is that necessarily an excuse not to return to the office? As for the coronavirus, the CDC recently relaxed guidelines on social distancing and quarantining yet again, though it doesn’t seem people pay as much attention to what the CDC says anymore. 

According to the health agency, people exposed to COVID no longer have to quarantine unless they develop symptoms or test positive. CDC epidemiologist Greta Massetti even said in a statement that while the new guidance acknowledges the pandemic isn’t over, it “helps move us to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives.” Across America, mask and social distancing mandates have become anything but strictly enforced, especially in more conservative areas. 

So, is the pandemic still keeping people out of the office? Or has it become just another of the myriad reasons to stay home, ranking side by side with inflation and long commutes, and perhaps an excuse from workers who simply like remote work?

The genie’s out of the bottle

This is not to say that COVID-19 is still not a concern. The U.S. has been averaging around 90,000 new cases daily, though official case counts ebb and flow as they always have throughout this ordeal. Hospital admission rates nationwide have increased because of highly infectious variants, and the Department of Health and Human Services notes the number of people currently hospitalized because of COVID has plateaued at about 43,000 patients. The most recent number of hospitalizations as of this writing is more than 37,600. By comparison, during last winter’s surge, more than 160,000 virus-positive patients were hospitalized. Still, the daily average of about 400 deaths from the virus concerns healthcare officials.

But despite the stubbornness of the pandemic, it seems in most places (in America at least), COVID has faded from the public’s consciousness. Many people have essentially returned to their everyday lives, going to crowded bars and restaurants, sporting events, concerts, and family gatherings. Public opinion polls about the pandemic are a mixed bag, but many show optimism about the pandemic, though mostly along partisan lines. 

Thirty-four percent of Americans said the “pandemic is over” in May 2022, and 21 percent of people say their lives have returned back to normal, according to a Gallup poll, and the share of people saying the pandemic is over continues to grow. This has been a sore spot for burned-out healthcare workers, who continue to toil on the frontlines and care for COVID patients.

This so-called careless attitude among some people about the virus has also frustrated the many who suffer severe health complications, described by the medical community as “long COVID.” Research has increasingly shown that millions of people globally are suffering from long COVID, with symptoms ranging from brain fog, fatigue, chest pains, difficulty breathing, and even hallucinations. The medical community doesn’t know exactly what to make of long COVID, highlighting how complicated the pandemic still is. A recent Brookings Institute report revealed that around 16 million working-age Americans have long COVID today, and of those people, 2 to 4 million are out of work because of it.

Despite all this, I’m not convinced the coronavirus is the main concern anymore for the average employee when they consider returning to the office. A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that fewer American workers than ever cite worries about being exposed to coronavirus as the main reason they’re working remotely all or most of the time (42 percent now versus 57 percent in 2020). Instead, more people surveyed said they primarily work from home because that’s what they want. Seventeen percent of people also said they’re working remotely because they relocated away from their company’s main office.

CDC’s recent change in guidelines set the stage for an easier transition to more in-office work, but it likely won’t help return to office efforts. The pandemic may have started the remote work revolution and anti-office movement, but we’ve moved past that stage. “Even as COVID recedes as a reason for all these work arrangements, they’ve now developed a momentum of their own,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist for job site ZipRecruiter. “It’s difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.”

Coronavirus outbreaks will continue to happen at workplaces. For example, there was a sizable recent outbreak at one of Google’s offices at its Silicon Beach campus in Venice, California, leading to 145 infections, according to the Los Angeles County of Public Health. But even when these super-spreader events happen, many people nationwide seem eager to move on from the overly cautious phase of the pandemic and return to their everyday lives. But returning to normal for many doesn’t include returning to the office.

Facing the facts

We still don’t know precisely what the post-pandemic future holds for the office market, but we might know soon. So far, it seems like the durability of remote work and the likelihood of fewer days in the office is increasingly looking like the new normal. There have been many arguments that if workers lose leverage in the job market or a recession comes to fruition, they could be forced back. But the vehemence of so many workers’ preference for remote work leads me to believe more each day that we’ll never go back to the traditional office of the past and five days a week of office work.

In light of the office market’s upheaval, office owners need to go back to the drawing board in a big way, and that’s already happening nationwide. Office owners will need to provide better spaces, but not necessarily more space. Workers will be in the office for a shorter period, and the only reason they’ll be there is likely for team meetings or collaboration. Building owners have probably dreaded this for a while, but office footprints appear to be shrinking, for the time being, at least. 

Companies simply don’t need as much space per employee with hybrid work models. It is a trend that pre-dates the pandemic but something that’s been kicked into overdrive since COVID started. Seventy-two percent of CFOs and finance leaders said they want to trim their organization’s real estate footprint by the end of 2022, according to a July survey by Gartner, Inc. And announcements about major corporations cutting big chunks and downsizing office space are appearing every day.

Many people have said this recently, so much that it’s become somewhat cliché, but offices need to become like ‘destinations’ now more than ever. Landlords may want to think beyond their corporate occupiers to create office buildings for more than the simple purpose of being a place to work. An example of this is Brookfield’s One Manhattan West, a development that mixes office space with retail, entertainment, fine dining, and more. People come to One Manhattan West for more than just work, and the development is available to everyone in the city, regardless of whether they work in one of the office towers. When offices are competing with the comforts of home, amenities like indoor basketball courts, rooftop lounges, and community gardens can get people off the couch.

Office owners and corporate occupiers can also lean into more technology to personalize the return to office experience for employees. Tenant experience apps that help workers plan their days, order lunch from their favorite local take-out spots, and figure out which days their co-worker friends will be in the office can nudge more people to return. People who have worked remotely for so long are used to personalized apps like OpenTable and social media that make their lives more convenient and make planning things easier, so many believe the office should adopt these trends to their advantage.

AT&T employees may partly blame COVID for continuing to work at home, but that may not be the case for many knowledge workers anymore. They got a taste of remote work, and they don’t want to give it up. They may have no problem going to a sporting event or with indoor dining, but they don’t want to work in an office unless it’s a place that provides the type of amenities and the type of experience that’ll make them want to go.

The point is, everything and anything remains on the table in the office market, and with each passing month, we’re beginning to get a glimpse of what the post-COVID workplace will look like. The coronavirus may have started the epic transformation of the office sector, but it is no longer the driving force. Many white-collar employees simply refuse to give up the freedom of working from home. Hybrid work is a compromise between employers and workers that feels like an uneasy truce in some cases.

The more offices become magnets for workers, the more office owners can win in this tumultuous transition time for the sector. Office owners who admit that remote and hybrid work is here to stay in some shape or form are more likely to adjust their strategies and be the ones who will succeed in the future. Offices may never reach the occupancy levels and full-time traffic they used to have, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to wave the white flag. The office market is rapidly evolving, so strap in for the turbulence ahead and be prepared for more new, bold ideas that’ll inevitably be in the sector’s future.

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