Since March, when the COVID-19 crisis began, there’s been non-stop talk about the sudden disappearance of the office from modern life. Though remote work has been on the rise for a while now, it's felt like the pandemic ushered in an abrupt end rather than a slow fade. The consensus seemed to be: If you’re able to fulfill your duties remotely, why would you risk getting or spreading COVID-19?
But these may just be the musings of a minority of people, those who have the fortune and flexibility to envision work without the physical constraints of a workplace. After all, most U.S. jobs can’t be done totally off-site, and recent office space rentals show that some companies are still looking to expand their physical presence. According to new LinkedIn research out today, which surveyed over 1,000 office workers between the ages of 18 and 74, 69% say they’re currently working in an office — either because it already reopened or, as 41% say, because it never closed at all.
Among those who’ve been able to work from home, 63% say that, if they had a choice, they would keep working from home at least some of the time. The main reason cited is feeling unsafe — concerns that might be heightened by the fact that about 70% of offices have at least some open-plan areas, much to the chagrin of many employees. A quarter surveyed have some flexibility on how they return to the office, and 37% say they have the choice to not return at all. But for the almost a third of workers being mandated to come back, it’s difficult to tell their bosses no, especially in a time of mass layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts, when jobs feel anything but stable.
So far, there seems to be a huge variance in how companies are setting WFH policies and also how strictly in-office safety measures are being instituted and enforced. Of all survey respondents, 78% believe there is a need for new COVID-19 workplace policies. Reassuringly, of those who are already back at their offices, 74% say they’re satisfied with the protections their employers have put in place. In fact, 57% said that they’re now required to wear a mask all day at the office, while 85% say they are social distancing from colleagues — but then, what about the other 15%? About a quarter of respondants say that, for them, the reign of Zoom will continue, with no face-to-face meetings allowed for a while. 20% say their offices will open but won’t be at full capacity, having employees return in shifts instead.
Various state and local governments have enacted mandatory rules for the reopening of offices, but there’s not yet a national workplace safety standard. Enforcement of these rules also varies, with some experts saying that OSHA is not doing enough to follow up on complaints. In particular, there have been widespread allegations of negligent safety protocols across meat processing facilities that have led to thousands of workers catching COVID-19, and accusations of inadequate investigation of these claims. Meanwhile, the next stimulus package contains a key provision that would provide immunity against potential COVID-19 lawsuits workers could bring against companies.
Tech giants like Twitter, Google, and Facebook have made the news in recent months for their long-term work-from-home policies, and are even providing workers with a $1,000 budget for all of their work-from-home expenses. As some corporations settle in for the WFH long haul, questions are arising as to what will happen to their office spaces. Will they downsize to something more modest? Will some get rid of their leases altogether? Twitter announced in May that most of its employees would be welcome to work from home “forever”, but it hasn’t yet revealed what it plans to do with its headquarters and other U.S. offices. Overall, it’s clear that the commercial real estate market is down. According to research by real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle, the total amount of office leasing dropped by 53.4% in the second quarter of 2020.
Some companies are making office moves because of — or, in some cases, in spite of — the pandemic. Credit Karma decided to close its San Francisco office, consolidating employees into its Oakland office earlier than originally planned. Citigroup, rather than reducing or consolidating office space, is considering short-term leases in NYC suburbs to help spread out employees safely. According to Variety, media giant Condé Nast, which among other publications owns Vogue, The New Yorker, and Bon Appetit, is considering breaking its 25-year lease in 1 World Trade Center, which began in 2014, and “touring possible space in more affordable neighborhoods.” On Monday, Facebook announced it would be leasing all of the historic James A. Farley post office in midtown Manhattan, which is across from transportation megahub Penn Station — sometimes referred to as the worst place in NYC by residents. Other tech companies, including Microsoft and TikTok — whose U.S. operations Microsoft is currently looking into acquiring — have also signed new office leases during the pandemic.
So, it seems like corporate America isn’t quite done with offices yet. LinkedIn’s report also found that Gen Z workers are most likely to say they’d choose to return to offices over continuing to WFH — 42% want to return, compared to just 26% of millennials. That may be due to Gen Z workers being earlier on in their careers, and recognizing the potential impact on career advancement as a result of having fewer opportunities to interact with colleagues and managers in person. After all, about a quarter of Gen Z respondents say they started a new job in the past three months.