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Outdoor Air Quality May Have an Impact on Office Attendance

When thousands of New Yorkers became engulfed in what seemed like an orange cloud of smoke in June 2023 due to a rash of wildfires in Canada, the office probably seemed like the best place to be. Offices offer a level of professional air filtration that most don’t have in their own homes. But the long-term impact on outdoor air quality and office attendance is still unknown. To better understand the connection between outdoor air quality and office attendance we examined the pertinent statistics in some of the top metropolitan office markets in the United States.

Outdoor air pollution levels vary day-by-day, as does office attendance, which can be impacted by any number of factors. We used the U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI) as a metric for the average air quality over the course of the year. A ranking between 0-50 constitutes good air quality, 51 to 100 indicates moderate quality, and a ranking between 101 and 150 is deemed unhealthy for sensitive groups.

Metro MarketOffice Attendance Air Quality
Los Angeles49.3%67
New York46.8%45
Washington, D.C.44.2%67
San Francisco42.9%20
San Jose38.8%26
Source: Office attendance by Kastle Systems. Air quality index by AirNow.

Looking at 10 key metropolitan office markets one day in early August, none of the cities’ reached the unhealthy to very unhealthy level, which ranges between 151 and 300 on the AQI scale. Figures between 301 and 500 constitute hazardous air quality. Houston, which recorded the highest office attendance of the 10 markets at 60.5 percent, also logged the highest ranking on the AQI for ozone at 115. On the other end of the spectrum, the San Jose, California, area had the lowest office attendance with only 38.8 percent of workers coming into the office, and the market also recorded one of the lowest numbers on the AQI, just 26, which falls in the good air quality category. 

Comparing the two extremes appears to indicate that more people make their way to the office on days when the air quality is unhealthy, and more workers stay away from the workplace when the air quality is good. But statistics in other markets contradict such a trend. At 58 percent, Austin had the second-highest office attendance on August 2, but the air quality was not unhealthy, it was moderate at 54 on the AQI. Yet, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the metro areas with the lowest office attendance, San Jose, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, all ranked in the good air quality category.

Globally, the real estate industry is working feverishly on the decarbonization of buildings, which will help mitigate outdoor air pollutants considerably and provide high levels of indoor clean air. Because property owners have the capital to invest in adapting their buildings to provide superior air quality, the office sector will likely always be ahead of the residential market in providing the cleanest air. It is unclear if metropolitan areas with poor air quality will spur employees to spend more days in their inhalation-friendly workplaces. However, it is clear that clean air is a highly coveted amenity among the workforce in general. A recent workplace trends report found that 86 percent of its survey respondents asserted that air purification systems are a must-have or strongly desirable among employees. 

Putting the desire for clean air in perspective, 78 percent of survey participants reported that access to outdoor patios or roof decks is a must-have or strongly desirable. In this age of health and wellness, clean air has become an increasingly important factor for office workers, and office owners, if eager to attract and retain the best talent and keep their workers healthy, will have to make clean air in the workplace a top priority. But the reality is, not all office owners are in a position to invest in cleaner indoor air. Class B and C office properties comprise roughly 80 percent of the office market and while generally low on occupancy levels in the current real estate cycle, they are still home to workers. But in many cases, the economics of the situation mean that these offices are not likely to become a refuge for workers seeking higher air quality.

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