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Working & the Economy

Getting Workers Back to the Office? It’s a Work in Progress, Survey Finds

Fewer than half of 164 businesses surveyed by the Greater Washington Partnership have returned to the office. And employees are increasingly negotiating the right to work from home. Unsplash.com photo.

When employers in the Washington, D.C. region were surveyed a year ago, they predicted that three-quarters of their employees would be back in the office when the fall of 2021 rolled around.

Although a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine has been available for nearly 12 months, the return to the traditional workplace hasn’t played out as anticipated.

A follow-up survey, conducted in September, found that fewer than half of all employees — just 47% — are back in the office. Managers don’t expect to reach the two-thirds threshold until next summer.

The survey, commissioned by the Greater Washington Partnership, an alliance of some of the region’s largest employers, identified several reasons for the continued use of telework, including the lingering pandemic, elevated levels of community transmission, and concern over COVID-19 variants.

Other surveys have found that workers have grown accustomed to being able to skip the hassles of commuting and dressing for the office. Many workers have said they feel more productive at home or at a coffee shop, and they enjoy being around their pets.

“I do think the genie is out of the bottle. It’s really shocking,” said workplace consultant Mary Abbajay, CEO of the Careerstone Group. “I’ve worked with a lot of organizations that didn’t want to go hybrid [a combination of remote and in-office work], but they were facing a mass resignation if they didn’t keep some flexibility.”

Although many bosses have traditionally been skeptical about telework, because of fears about reduced productivity and collaboration, the pandemic experience suggests that attitudes have changed greatly.

More than half of all employers surveyed — 52% — said they expect the amount of telework their employees perform will remain about the same over the next 12 months.

“Telework and remote work are becoming more entrenched into business norms,” said John Hillegass, manager of regional mobility and infrastructure at the Greater Washington Partnership.

Michelle O’Hara, chief human resources officer at SAIC, a large government services and information technology firm, agreed.

“Remote and hybrid work are here to stay,” she said. “Our own employees have told us they value as much optionality and choice as possible when it comes to flexible work. And we hear the same thing from candidates we recruit.”

The workplace survey, the Capital COVID-19 Snapshot, queried 164 businesses, representing 290,000 employees in Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia.

The slow-motion return to the office has many ramifications for the economy:

  • Building owners have seen occupancy rates drop, as companies reduce the amount of space they need. If the survey contained any good news for landlords, it was the finding that three-quarters of employers do not expect to expand or reduce their real-estate footprint over the next twelve months.
  • Reduced property values for office buildings translate into lower revenues for local governments.
  • Workers are increasingly negotiating for the right to work from home — and they are more willing to switch employers to find a boss willing to grant their desire for a hybrid or all-remote work arrangement.
  • Restaurants, dry cleaners and other retailers — many of them small businesses — have seen revenues tank because fewer people are in the office.
  • Street-level retail vacancies have increased, and some retailers have cut hours and payroll.
  • Transit agencies have seen revenues plummet because fewer people are using the bus and subway — either because they’re working from home or have decided it’s safer to drive.

Some bosses want employers back in the office because of a fear that workplace culture will fade if people aren’t together. Others worry that new employees will be at a disadvantage if they have never met their coworkers.

“I do believe that face-to-face has a lot of advantage. I just don’t think you need it every day,” said Abbajay. “There are some projects where being together in a room, you can collaborate much easier and much faster.”

She advises clients to put “parameters” around their work-from-home policies, “rather than have a free-for-all, do-what-you-want” attitude. And she suggests that project teams coordinate their schedules, so they’re in the office at the same time.

To help their employees feel safer in the workplace, more than half of the employers surveyed said they have added COVID-19 exposure quarantine policies, implemented mask requirements, limit worker exposure to clients and customers, and reconfigured worksites to increase social distancing.

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