WorkSpace Connect is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Are We Primed for a Return-to-Office Renaissance?

SouthWorks Alamy Stock Photo___2CTBDFW.jpg

Image: SouthWorks - Alamy Stock Photo
Warmer weather around the corner, an infectious disease in retreat, and CEOs asking employees to return to the office ... Sound familiar to anyone?
If déjà vu is setting in, you aren’t alone. A couple of weeks back, my colleague Eric Krapf, GM and program co-chair for Enterprise Connect, wrote an article on the return of “return to office (RTO)” on sister site No Jitter, explaining that despite changing attitudes towards remote work — and employees largely favoring continued remote work — that we might start to see more enterprises brushing off their RTO plans and getting serious about shifting working styles.
Of course, we’ve been here before—multiple times. We’ve seen large companies brace for RTO, only to scrap it entirely or kick the return date down the road. While we don’t know what type of curveball any variant of COVID will (or will not) throw at us, we can expect a host of workplace implications if the COVID pandemic does become endemic in 2022.
One question will surely come into focus: Will workplaces ease into RTO, or will they be more aggressive demanding employees come into the office more than not?
Obviously, factors beyond when a workplace deems it safe to return to the office will be part of the discussion -- namely how shifts in working style will impact the employee experience. But there are some indications that workplaces (and their CEOs) might be trending a bit more bullish in their in-person plans for the future, whether that be a full return or hybrid work. Consider this, 21% of 1,325 CEOs said in a KPMG 2021 survey that they will downsize their physical real estate footprint, down from 69% in a 2020 CEO survey, as I shared in this week's WorkSpace Connect Wrap.
And while 2021 didn’t become the great return to office that many were hoping for, we did see more people head back into the office, a trend that’s continuing into 2022. For perspective, Workplace security provider Kastle Systems shares a periodic report of occupancy rates, which is based on data from Kastle keycard and fob swipes and its app, providing insight into how many people are working in the office.
From anonymized activity of 341,000 unique office credential holders, Kastle was able to determine a national occupancy rate of 33%, with those in the legal profession at a higher 54.8% occupancy rate. Additionally, among major cities like Chicago, Houston, New York City metro, and Washington D.C. metro, there is a trend towards high occupancy as we start 2022, despite the winter COVID surge. Additionally, Texas cities typically had higher occupancy rates compared to other major cities: Austin Metro had 47.7%, Houston metro at 47.4%, and Dallas Metro at 44.8%, as of February 7, 2022, metric. (See related: Hybrid Work Overhyped? Arguments Against Grow)
These numbers seem to counter the office’s sharpest critics who proclaimed the “office is dead.”
So, if we are truly heading into the endemic stage of COVID, workplace leaders and strategists will need to sit down and reevaluate their RTO strategies, see what’s currently working and what’s not for those already in the office, and proceed cautiously.
One thing to keep in mind: Returning to the office in 2022 might not look like how it did in 2021 (or even 2020). First and foremost, the employee tolerance for employer-imposed workplace edicts has shifted since early 2020. And for those employees who haven’t stepped into an office in the last couple of years, they might need additional resources and support to acclimate themselves to working in a hybrid-work fashion.
As has been the case for two years now, workplace leaders are still facing a lot of what-ifs and plenty of uncertainty about the future of work. They should remember to consider that unpredictability when crafting any RTO strategy.