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Return to the Office Has Never Been One-Size-Fits-All

The return to the office has been a media obsession since at least early 2021, when COVID vaccines became available. It has become somewhat of an American ritual for big companies to announce return dates, followed by a wave of headlines and think-pieces and then, inevitably, what seems like a new COVID variant that throws plans off-track. But now, as COVID cases recede and much of America and the world begin living with the virus, the return to the office may be for real this time. It’s important to note, though, that returning employees to the office has never been a one-size-fits-all process. Different parts of the country have had varying return rates, often defined by local politics and health policies. And as some experts told me, even before the pandemic, how employers, workers, and landlords thought of the office was changing.

The shift to a hybrid, remote, and flexible workplace was already creeping in pre-pandemic, according to Sheila Botting, Principal and President of the Americas, Professional Services at Avison Young, a global commercial real estate firm. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, the trend went into overdrive. “Employees weren’t tied to their desks anymore right before the pandemic,” Botting said. “The average office seat was empty 50 percent of the time pre-pandemic.” Botting explained that many companies were also moving to digital platforms in the years leading up to COVID. Everything went digital when the pandemic hit and the world “woke up,” she explained. Employers and their workers realized the benefits of remote work, some organizations saw profits go up, absenteeism go down, and having a completely remote operation proved possible. But the biggest downside was lack of interaction, which is precisely where the new flex and collaborative office comes in.

Botting said about 85 percent of companies Avison Young surveys say they’re returning to the office in a hybrid fashion. Employees want to flex in and out of the office based on their job requirements. Some companies are trying to mandate four days in the office a week, but they’re getting push back. Many employees have more leverage in the job market than ever before, so returning to the office has been about what companies can do for them, so they want to come back. “Digital natives can work anytime or place, they’re empowered,” Botting said. “Remote work has changed the world, but it hasn’t been all negative. As companies think about the future of the office, they’re asking how do we retain employees in the war for talent?”

Simply irresistible offices

The flight to quality in the office market has been such a dominant theme that, trust me, I’m tired of writing about it. But it’s true. Employees want hybrid work, and if an office is amazing, people will want to visit it. What employees don’t want is the old cubicle mentality and model. The post-pandemic office is now for social interaction, like a social media collab house. Grunt work and other things can be done at home, and today’s workers don’t want to spend 40 hours a week in an office just punching the proverbial clock. Seeing and collaborating with co-workers is one thing employees want, but there’s more to it than that. A late 2021 Gensler survey of 2,364 U.S. office workers revealed the top thing employees want is better indoor air filtration systems.

Many of the top things on the list of employee wants in the Gensler survey related to COVID health and safety, including vaccine and testing requirements, mask requirements, and enhanced cleaning protocols. Surveyed office employees also wanted access to private spaces and more outdoor spaces to work. COVID may be less of a concern than a couple of years ago or even this past winter, but it’s made employees more health-conscious. Offices without these enhanced health and sanitary features could be at a disadvantage in returning to work.

Still, as COVID cases recede nationwide and health restrictions are relaxed, more people seem comfortable being out in public. In Philadelphia, where I live, COVID restrictions have been strict, and masks and vaccine cards were required at restaurants during the Omicron surge. With cases going down, the city has loosened restrictions, and it’s nice to see mask-less people dining out, shopping, and at the parks as the weather warms up. 

TripAdvisor predicts that, despite COVID, Americans may travel more in 2022 than 2019, according to a recent report based on search data and surveys. Seventy-three percent of Americans say they feel comfortable dining out at a restaurant, too, which is near the highest the percentage has been since Morning Consult began tracking it in the spring of 2020. Benjamin Breslau, Chief Research Officer, Americas at JLL, believes the same herd mentality that forced the shift to remote-only work because of COVID fears will soon push in the opposite direction. “If you go to the movies or a concert, that’s a commute-worthy experience,” Breslau said. “So, employers have to ask if their office is commute-worthy. The case for coming to the office has to be compelling.”

Employers have to ask if their office is commute-worthy. The case for coming to the office has to be compelling.

State by state

Weekly office visits have picked up rapidly in recent weeks, especially considering how dire things seemed in January when Omicron was at its peak. Avison Young’s Vitality Index shows that weekly visits have jumped by 74 percent in the U.S. and Canada since January 3, 2022 (as of March 14, 2022). Breslau believes we’ll continue to see weekly office visits increase in the next 2 to 3 months unless something happens like a disruptive, new COVID variant. But because of hybrid work, both Breslau and Botting said getting back to pre-pandemic office weekly visits still may be a far way off if it ever happens.

The Vitality Index also shows that weekly office visits in the U.S. and Canada are down 64 percent compared to March 2, 2020. But Breslau said that office demand has increased, and the market is recovering well. He said leasing activity is up significantly, net absorption turned positive at the end of 2021, and overall economic growth has helped, too. The office market’s recovery has been uneven, though, because of the flight to quality, with much higher vacancies in lower-quality buildings.

Return to office rates also vary greatly depending on the region. For example, in places like the Sunbelt and Texas, things have felt relatively back to normal for a year now, and Breslau said those regions will lead the charge. Gateway markets and big cities like Chicago and New York have been slower to return, but they’ve gained momentum in recent weeks. Much has been said about San Francisco’s struggling office market, mostly tied to its dependence on remote-friendly tech companies. But more big companies in San Francisco and on the West Coast are pushing at least a partial/hybrid return. Prominent employers in San Fran like Salesforce, Uber, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America have publicly announced plans to return more employees to the office.

The industry composition of a city affects return rates, but the use of mass transit does, too. Botting of Avison Young says not everyone has felt safe using mass transit because of COVID concerns in places like New York, though that’s starting to change. She also noted that rising gas prices may play a role in the upcoming weeks for offices in more car-centric areas like the suburbs. Unleaded gas recently reached a record $4.33 per gallon in the U.S., and energy experts say it could pass $5 per gallon over the summer.

Not a magic date on the calendar

Federal, state, and local politicians have also entered the fray on return to the office, with some urging employers to end remote work policies. President Biden mentioned returning to the office during his State of the Union address as part of his administration’s new COVID strategy. “Because of the progress we’ve made fighting COVID, Americans can not only get back to work, but they can go to the office and safely fill our great downtown cities again,” Biden said. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has been beating the return-to-office drum for several months, tying the return to work with the city’s post-pandemic recovery.

In the aforementioned San Francisco, Mayor London Breed has launched an entire initiative, “Welcome Back to SF,” requiring city and county workers back to the office and calling for private-sector workers to return. Only 27.6 percent of San Fran workers have returned to the office as of the week of March 2nd, according to access card company Kastle Systems. The politicians’ talk makes perfect sense, given a return to normalcy will help revive city central business districts and the economy as a whole. For occupiers and landlords, it’s a welcome change from the height of the pandemic when the talk sounded much different and remote work was hailed as a safety measure.

Breslau advises companies returning to the office to take a learning mentality during this next phase. He said it’s helpful to create some structure instead of what he calls “choose-your-own-adventure” where employees have so many options that it becomes hard to manage. Investing in technology that makes hybrid work more seamless and productive is also critical. Breslau said that companies that don’t have the proper AV equipment setups, for example, are struggling. The return to the office can be positive for employees, even if some push to stay remote, but companies have to be thoughtful in their approach. “The pressure in the labor market is real, and it’ll be an important theme in the future,” Breslau said. “There will be some employee pushback.”

Some media outlets like to portray return to the office as some magical date on the calendar, but it’s more nuanced than that. It depends on various factors, some are regional, and some are based on the company. At Avison Young, Botting said they’ve been back in the office a few days a week, and “it’s been wonderful to see and meet new people.” This kind of human interaction is what employers are counting on with their return to office plans. Remote work has many perks, but there are well-being benefits of being back at the office.

Seeing co-workers, using office amenities, and more is all a plus compared to sitting in your kitchen all day on Zoom calls in your pajamas. And if the company offers a beautiful workplace, that’s all the more reason to come back. Every company will handle returning to the office differently, and it may be a while until we see weekly visits reach pre-pandemic levels. We’re slowly getting into the post-pandemic new normal, and returning to the office won’t happen overnight. Of course, all this momentum can change swiftly, as it has so many times already. In recent days, U.S. health experts have warned of a new, highly contagious Omicron variant, called BA.2, that could lead to an uptick in COVID cases. Only time will tell if new variants change return to office calculations yet again. In the meantime, things for occupiers and landlords are finally moving in the right direction and offices may start seeing more action than they have in quite some time.

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