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City Offices Remain Largely Underused as COVID-19 Pandemic Persists

  • Few workers returning to the office as COVID-19 pandemic persists
  • Shortage of office workers is affecting commercial landlords, company managers, and downtown businesses
  • Companies likely to adopt a mix of in-office and remote work after the pandemic

Remote work arrangements are persisting amid a third wave of COVID-19 infections in the United States, putting further strain on cities and downtown businesses that traditionally rely on the foot traffic of office workers.

Kastle Systems, a security firm tracking access at 2,500 office buildings in 10 major American cities, found that only about one in four office workers had returned to an office environment by mid-November. The share of employees working in an office fell to a low of 15 percent in April, then climbed gradually to 27.4 percent in October before the recent pullback.

San Francisco and New York City saw the lowest rate of workers returning to the office. Dallas-Fort Worth had the highest share of workers resuming office work at 40.3 percent.

The long-term retreat from traditional office spaces has put a strain on commercial landlords, who have often been opening up vacant space for sublease. It has also frustrated managers who favor the easier collaboration and oversight offered by in-office work. The overall city environment has been widely impacted, with downtown businesses and restaurants struggling from the diminished population of visitors and lower use of public transit systems.

The surge in COVID-19 infections has prompted renewed restrictions in many areas in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. With a second wave of COVID-19 impacting Europe, London abandoned plans to bring more workers back to the office by late September to help revive the downtown economy.

The pandemic has caused many companies to rethink how they approach the office environment, with some opting to retain a partially remote setup and establish smaller satellite locations for in-person meetings. Several tech companies are allowing employees to work remotely until mid-2021.

Forecasts for the future of the office suggest that workers will still need a place to congregate to allow for collaboration, interpersonal relationships, and to establish a company culture. Many businesses are likely to allow workers to spend some of the week working remotely and some of it working in the office. The model could also have wider ramifications for the development of both suburban areas and urban downtowns.

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