A Return to the Office Is Coming at a Glacial Pace

By the end of the year, most of the companies that plan on returning to the office will have made the transition, but the move is taking longer than anyone expected. “The good news is that we expect a return to office to pick up momentum. The challenging news is that it is taking time. My boss Richard Barkham likes to say that this is happening at a glacial pace, and I would whole heartedly agree with him,” Julie Whelan, global head of occupier thought leadership at CBRE, said in a recent webinar hosted by CBRE to discuss the 2022 US Occupier Survey.

The survey in reviews 185 corporate real estate executives in the US. This year, it found that 36% of companies have either already transitioned or are in the process of transitioning back into the office, while 26% of respondents said the transition will happen by the end of the second quarter. That means that about two-thirds of employees will be back in the office by the mid-year. “At that time, we should really start to feel the difference in our buildings and in our cities as these expectations unfold,” said Whelan. “But, there are still a good amount of respondents that are [making plans to return] beyond the first half of 2022 or that are unsure about a return to the office. That tells us that it is likely going to take the remainder of 2022 until we can truly start to see stable patterns emerge of space utilization.”

Whelan is referring to the 15% of companies that plan to begin the transition in the second half of the year. The remaining 23% either don’t know or are leaving it up to the discretion of the employee.

While organizations will technically be back in the office, hybrid work policies will contribute to a quieter office sector than in the past. According to Whelan, that is due to widespread policies that allow a voluntary return to the office. When asked what the guidance was for employees returning to the office, 53%of companies said it is voluntary and another 16% said that it varies. Only 31% of respondents are requiring a return to the office.

Although this change is happening slowly, Whelan noted that corporate leaders are working diligently to encourage a return and establish new office guidance. “It is important to note that [companies with voluntary policies] are not just sitting back and hoping for the best. They are taking steps to motivate employees to return,” she explains. “They are consistently communicating the purpose of the office to employees and leadership expectations of how they want employees to behave in terms of when they should visit the office.”

Many companies are also working with mid-level leadership to better address employee needs to return. “They are also working at the individual team and business unit level so that they can create strategies for managers and create events that cause people to want to come back into the office,” says Whelan. [This creates] a specific reason that is drawing them back that is going to be productive and useful for them.”

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