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Who’s really returning to the office? It’s not exactly who you think

A new tool tracks how various cities and industries are—and aren’t—returning to the office.

Who’s really returning to the office? It’s not exactly who you think
[Photos: Massimo Giachetti/iStock, Floriane Vita/Unsplash, ismagilov/iStock]
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The return to the office is a goalpost that can’t seem to stop moving. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies pledged to welcome workers back by the end of 2020, which soon became summer 2021, and then turned into fall 2021, and now has become the equivalent of a long string of question marks.

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“Everybody around North America said after Labor Day, everybody’s going to return to the office. It’s going to be a return to normal,” says Sheila Botting, a principal at the real estate services company Avison Young. “And we said, ‘Really?'”

[Screenshot: Avison Young]
That wholesale return—brace yourself—has not materialized. But Botting says some workers in some places are returning. Tracking where and how that’s happening, she argues, will offer a more informed understanding of when the so-called normal may reemerge.

Avison Young launched a new visualization tool this month to do just that. Named the Vitality Index, the tool compiles data daily to create a near-real-time picture of office foot traffic in more than 20 cities across the U.S. and Canada in more than 30 industries. The tool, which is free for anyone to access, aims to bring clarity to a constantly evolving situation and also offer data to Avison Young’s clients, who it serves as a real estate advisor, broker, and investment manager.

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“We can measure these return-to-work efforts as they evolve,” says Craig Leibowitz, executive director of innovation and insight advisory at Avison Young, who led the development of the index. “If the current environment has taught us anything, it’s that this is not a static situation.”

[Screenshot: Avison Young]
Using March 2, 2020, as a benchmark for what a normal work day was like before COVID-19 upended standard practices, the Vitality Index shows that cities are currently seeing office occupancy between 60% and 90% lower than it was in early 2020.

Currently, Austin, Texas; Edmonton, Alberta; and Calgary, Alberta, have the most people heading back to the office, with workers returning at levels of 63% and 67%, respectively, below the March 2020 benchmark. Places like Silicon Valley, Miami, and Ottawa are seeing offices with around 90% fewer workers than before the pandemic set in. Leibowitz says some of this is related to COVID-19 cases and government regulations on when it’s safe to return to workplaces, and some is related to the way industries function. He notes that the food-and-beverage industry requires more in-person work compared to banking or technology companies that have more easily transitioned to remote work.

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These differences are part of the reason the return to work looks so uneven across North America. “The Nashvilles and the Atlantas of the world are actually behind some of the more diversified economies like New York,” Leibowitz says.

Work, of course, has not gone fully remote. Though it might seem like everyone has been forced to change the place and way they work, not every worker works in an office, and not every job can be done from home. Only 21% of U.S. workers were working from home by March 2021, and many never had the chance.

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For the segment of workers that do work in offices, the Vitality Index provides a vivid explanation of how things are going. The index relies on anonymized cell-phone tracking, which is aggregated by Orbital Insight, a geospatial intelligence and location analytics company. With data geofenced to specific areas within cities, the company can track foot traffic into specific buildings, and has data going back to June 2019.

“Big data’s everywhere. If you have a cell phone or use a computer, guess what, you’re being tracked,” Leibowitz says. The data collection and specificity, he says, is “no different than badge swipes in terms of potential invasiveness.”

The data have wide implications, not just in terms of providing another way to see how badly the pandemic has thumped the economy. Botting says she expects the Vitality Index to be useful to building owners, the companies that occupy those buildings, city officials, transit agencies, and the commercial businesses trying to figure out when their customers will be back at the coffee shop, lunch spot, or happy hour. “By monitoring the results, everybody’s able to use the data to make meaningful and informed decisions,” she says.

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The people who may find the data most useful are the ones leasing office space, as they try to figure out if they should keep paying for what they have. “From an occupier’s perspective, you can plan your real estate and your footprint, you can reduce your footprint, you might go to a hub-and-spoke model, you may do many different things,” Botting says. “If I’m working for a financial services client, and I see they’ve got 500,000 square feet in a city, and I know that a chunk of their employees can have a hybrid work style, we can easily reduce that footprint.”