In the ongoing battle between bosses and workers over returning to the office, recent data shows more people are trudging back to the workplace. In the first week following Labor Day, office usage in 10 major metro areas neared 50% of 2020’s pre-pandemic attendance, reports Kastle Systems, a key-card property management company that tracks entries into office buildings.
There were more workers in the office last week than there have been since the pandemic started. However, in-office attendance is still lower than what it was before the virus outbreak. The in-office numbers may be low since Kastle’s data doesn’t include many of the city’s biggest real estate owners, including large law firms, banks, financial services and Wall Street firms.
Separately, the Partnership for New York City, a business industry trade group, surveyed more than 160 major Manhattan office employers between August 29 and September 12 to take the pulse of how many employees returned to the office or are still working remotely. Results indicate that 49% of Manhattan office workers are currently at the workplace on an average weekday—up from 38% in April.
Under 10% of employees are in the office five days a week. The number of fully remote workers fell from 28% in April to 16% as of mid-September. Train ridership is another indicator reflecting a return-to-office pickup after Labor Day. Many companies used the long weekend as the last gasp of freedom before ordering their employees back to headquarters.
After the long holiday weekend, 200,000 passengers rode the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan. The number of riders was the highest level since March 2020. Commuters from Westchester and surrounding suburbs riding the Metro-North Railroad in the City hit a high point compared to the pandemic period with 174,900 riders. Additionally, New York City public transit data showed an increase in returning workers with subway ridership, having 3.7 million riders for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.
The Partnership for New York City predicts that there will ultimately be a tipping point when the majority return to office. According to the Partnership’s analysis, 54% of workers will ultimately return to an office setting by January 2023. Even the tech industry, which has been the most resistant to going back to an office, is nearing the tipping point. Currently, average daily office attendance by tech professionals is at 47%, and that number is expected to increase to 50% by January.
Shifting Power Dynamics
There is a power dynamic shift taking place between the employee and employer. Throughout 2021 and early this year, workers were in high demand. Desperately needing staff as the economy reopened, companies catered to the workers. Seemingly overnight, the mood dramatically changed. As inflation raged, wreaking havoc on the economy, along with other geopolitical and macro events, thousands of people were downsized, hiring freezes put in place and job offers rescinded.
Americans now find themselves in a period of austerity. As this plays out, the dynamics between employees and employers will dramatically change. Companies will start clamping down and wielding their power, and the first order of business will be the return to office. A study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that supervisors have “negative perceptions” of the work-from-home trend and said they’d prefer their staff to operate from an office setting.rity
The managers who responded to the survey were brutally honest. Nearly 70% replied that remote workers are “more easily replaceable than onsite workers.” About 62% contend that “full-time remote work is detrimental to employees’ career objectives and 72% say they would prefer all of their subordinates to be working in the office.”
The Hybrid Model
The dominant style of work is the hybrid model, promoted by tech companies, which calls for people to work from the office two or three days out of the week and the rest of the time from home—or wherever they so choose. However, while tech leadership offered fully remote and hybrid options, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google scooped up commercial real estate after prices plummeted, due to the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The companies are making a bold contrarian bet that Manhattan will bounce back and there will still be a need for people to work in offices. Facebook leased enough space in New York City to triple the amount of people that can work in the city. Apple, which has been in New York for at least a decade, plans to expand its footprint there. Google and Amazon are snatching up space in the city more than any other place in the United States.
Amazon recently paid about $1 billion to acquire the Lord & Taylor flagship building in Midtown Manhattan from WeWork. Collectively, the tech behemoths can accommodate over 20,000 workers. In hindsight, it looks like the tech giants were hedging their bets by offering flexible options, while scooping up real estate in case they needed to change their work style.
The Showdown: Workers Will Continue To Push For Remote Work Options
You will likely soon see a showdown. Many surveys over the last year or so show that employees adamantly responded that they would rather quit than commute back to an office. People have grown accustomed to a better work-life balance by being at home. They appreciate the autonomy and freedom that comes with the flexibility of choice. Their productivity and hours spent working are above reproach.
Runaway inflation has driven the costs of commuting into big cities. The prices of fuel, automobile maintenance, food, business clothing and other necessities will eat into their paycheck, which is already depressed, due to inflation, making the money worth less than it was only six months ago. The long, exhausting, soul-sucking and expensive commute, along with random acts of terrifying violence, is keeping workers from returning to their offices.
In the ongoing tug-of-war battle over companies pushing people to come back into major cities, such as Manhattan, business executives conveniently gloss over these real issues and pretend they don’t exist. If you are commuting into the Big Apple from one of the boroughs, Westchester, Long Island, the suburbs of Connecticut or New Jersey, your commute can easily take two-plus hours door-to-door roundtrip.
The timing is generous, as it doesn’t include the daily frustrations of train delays, constant work being done on the tracks and mechanical issues with the bus where everyone needs to get off and is left stranded on the side of the road until another bus can pick them up. When you come home, you’re tired and burned out.
You also have to worry about your physical safety. New York City can be a dangerous place. According to data from the New York City Police Department, “crime increased by 34.2% in April 2022,” compared to the same period last year. There has been a “43.5% increase in grand larceny” and “burglaries also increased by 39.4%,” compared to last year, which was high to begin with. In April alone, there were 1,261 robberies, 2,044 felony assaults, 3,867 instances of grand larceny and 105 shootings. These represent the reported acts, and the number of unreported incidents is likely much higher.
The most recent data from the New York City Police Department showed an overall increase in crime during August 2022 by 26% compared with August 2021, 38% increase in robbery, 34.7% increase in grand larceny and a 31.1% rise in burglary.
Rationale For Businesses To Promote In-Office Work
David Solomon, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, epitomized Wall Street’s view of not being in the office, saying remote work is an “aberration.” Wall Street banks are the most ardent proponents of getting people into the office. It’s reasonable that the leadership feels this way. The securities industry is highly regulated. They need to consider money laundering, insider trading, ponzi schemes, churning client accounts for higher commissions and other inappropriate activities. If all the bankers, brokers and traders are under one roof, it’s easier for the compliance, legal, risk, audit and regulatory personnel to keep tabs on them.
There is another rationale at play too. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams has been a strong proponent of businesses getting their employees back into the office. As crime and violence escalated in the Big Apple, as there were fewer people around, Adams contends that with commuters coming back, there will be safety in numbers.
There is also an economic reason. If commuters from New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut suburbs won’t return, the ecosystem of restaurants, mom-and-pop shops, retail stores, nail salons, gyms and other small businesses will likely fail. This would cause job losses, empty streets, invite more crime and deter both workers and potential tourists from coming into New York City.
The Benefits Of Returning To An Office
Starting a new job is stressful. It’s even harder when you’re doing it remotely. If you’re just beginning to build a career, working remotely may serve as a roadblock to your future success. After over two years of being at home, you most likely lost touch with some or all of your social contacts. If you remain remote, you run the risk of feeling isolated and it will be difficult to cultivate a group of like-minded people.
For young adults, going to the office has positive social benefits. You will meet new people, make friends and build a network of alliances that could help you throughout your career. There are a host of benefits to being at the office. You can find mentors to help navigate your career. There will be serendipitous meetings in the hallways, cafeteria, elevator and bathrooms. These impromptu interactions add up over time. It makes your work life better—or at least more tolerable—by having cohorts that share the same experiences.