A year ago and a pandemic, more than 100,000 people filled the central business district of Charlotte, North Carolina, spilling out of offices, including several recently built skyscrapers, and into restaurants, bars and sports venues. Then, as the coronavirus sent workers home, much of the city center quickly turned quiet and dark.
The return of these employees to their offices was interrupted and difficult. Last fall, Fifth Third Bank started bringing back workers, but quickly turned the tide. LendingTree, which is moving from the suburbs to the city, is waiting for the end of the school year. Wells Fargo has delayed returning to the office on several occasions, recently announcing to its employees that they would continue to work remotely until at least May 1. And Duke Energy will bring some employees back in June, along with most of the 6,000 people from its headquarters in September, when the kids should be able to return to school.
Business leaders across the country are wondering how to reopen offices as the pandemic begins to loosen its grip. Companies – and many employees – can’t wait to get back to normal working lives, get back to the office, have lunch at their favorite restaurant, or stop for a drink after work. But the world has changed, and many leaders and workers recognize the benefits of working remotely.
As coronavirus cases decline and vaccinations increase, many companies have failed to commit to a time and strategy to bring employees back. The most important variable, according to many executives, is how long it will take most employees to get vaccinated.
Another major consideration revolves around the children of workers. Businesses say they can’t make firm decisions until they know when local schools will reopen for in-person learning.
Then there’s a bigger question: does it make sense to go back to how things were before the pandemic given that people have become accustomed to the rhythms of remote work?
“Everyone has different levels of comfort coming back,” said Chuck McShane, senior vice president of the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, an organization that has helped attract business to the area. “For some businesses, it depends on the type of work you do and your ability to stay at home. But one concern about continuing to work remotely is: how are entry-level workers socialized in the office culture? “
About a quarter of employees across the country visit offices these days, according to Kastle Systems, an office security company that obtains data from 3,600 buildings in the United States.
Many companies, which pay to rent empty office space, are eager for this number to increase. Their leaders believe that working side-by-side enhances collaboration, supports the development of young employees, and nurtures the heart and soul of any business – its culture.
That’s why some executives like Mark Rose, managing director of Avison Young, a Chicago-based commercial property management and consulting firm with offices around the world, are asking employees to return to the office in April.
“You are not going to be fired or written down if you don’t come back, but it is expected that, subject to local laws and subject to your individual issues, you will start making the way home,” said Mr. Rose mentioned his 5,000 employees. “It will absolutely be an expectation.”
A massive return to the office would, of course, be a boon for commercial real estate companies like Avison Young. Homeowners, whose incomes are threatened as businesses move or reduce the amount of space they rent, breathe a sigh of relief. Many tenants have more space than they need. In Manhattan, the amount of sublet office space available for rent increased by nearly 50% last year and currently represents 27% of all available space, the highest share since the post-financial crisis period. from 2008, according to Savills.
In addition, a return to the office would help revive downtowns that have been ghost towns for months. Restaurants and bars could start hiring again, and returning commuters could generate much-needed income for struggling transit systems.
The course of the pandemic largely dictated office attendance. That number collapsed in March and April of last year when the pandemic took hold and began to slowly increase in late spring, according to Kastle. Another surge in infections after Thanksgiving brought occupancy rates down, but it appears to be on the rise.
There are big regional differences. In major cities in Texas, more than a third of workers are back, while the New York, San Francisco and Chicago areas remain below 20%.
Some of these regional differences could be explained by the way people get to work.
“In places where people commute using public transport, we know it makes people much more vulnerable to Covid just because of the presence of others, compared to if you are traveling in your own car” said Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard business school professor who studies remote working.
Some companies that have started trying to get workers back to the office – like Vivint, a Provo, Utah-based home security company that has more than 10,000 employees across the country – say they are doing so on on a voluntary basis.
Vivint is allowing 40% of its 4,000 employees to return to Utah, although only about 20% have chosen to do so on a regular basis. The company needed some call center workers who “have trouble answering their calls” and need extra coaching to intervene.
To account for social distancing, Vivint has restricted access to each building to a single entrance, where employees take their temperatures. The signs remind employees to wear masks at all times and the company has limited capacity in conference rooms.
Vivint also has an on-site clinic that offers 15-minute rapid virus tests to employees and their families. “This is extremely important to our ability to give our employees peace of mind,” said Starr Fowler, senior vice president of human resources.
The company hopes to use the clinic to distribute coronavirus vaccines to its workers, when Utah allows it to do so.
Some companies like Davis Wright Tremaine, a Seattle-based law firm, have said workers who wish to return to the office must be vaccinated. But others like Duke Energy have said they are trying to encourage, not demand, vaccinations.
To encourage employees to get vaccinated, Duke Energy provides “health reward points” to vaccinated employees, similar to the points employees receive for getting an annual physical exam or not using tobacco, said Neil Nissan, a spokesperson for Duke. These points can reduce the monthly health insurance costs of employees, he added.
The company said the pandemic would most likely have a lasting effect on its functioning.
“We’re going to have a hybrid working model,” Mr. Nissan said. “Some days an employee will be in the office and other days they will be working remotely. This gives flexibility to employees and prevents everyone from being there at the same time. “
More than 55% of people polled by consulting firm PwC at the end of last year said they would prefer to work remotely at least three days a week after the pandemic has receded. But their bosses seem to have somewhat different preferences – 68% of employers said they believe employees need to be in the office at least three days a week to maintain the corporate culture.
Salesforce, the San Francisco-based software company, recently received praise from some people when it said most of its employees could walk into the office one to three days a week – an approach the company called “Flexible” – once the pandemic is no longer a threat to public health. The company didn’t want to say if it needed less office space.
But other companies ultimately want all or nearly all employees to come back for most of the week – and tell workers their careers could suffer if they don’t come back.
Rapid7, a Boston-based cybersecurity company, will expect employees to return to the office at least three days a week when it determines it is safe to do so.
“We truly believe that our in-person workplaces foster our culture and our core values,” said Christina Luconi, director of human resources for the company.
Employees who choose not to return to the office could face professional repercussions, she said.
“We’re not saying we’re going to intentionally stagnate your career,” Ms. Luconi added. “But if you’re the strange person when everyone’s back together, it can be difficult for you.”
Yet this discussion is somewhat moot. Rapid7 has yet to set a return-to-office date and Ms Luconi said it will wait to do so until vaccines are widely available. The company tends to only allow vaccinated employees to return to the office.