2021 started optimistically as three types of vaccines received FDA approval and began to circulate. Restrictions eased during the Spring, but the Delta and Omicron variants spoiled workplace leaders’ plans in the latter half of the year. COVID cases are spiking again in early 2022, leaving major businesses like Apple, Goldman Sachs, and other global companies to re-evaluate when and how to bring employees back to the office. The seemingly unending challenges of balancing employee productivity and engagement complicated workplace leaders’ jobs last year.
Throughout 2021, Robin analyzed millions of data points from real-life employee interactions to offer insights into employees’ preferences and return to office (RTO) trends. They’ve crunched the data from our global customer base and are prepared to offer workplace leaders best practices for the year ahead.
The “Slow and Steady” RTO Approach is Winning the Race
Regional RTO trends have taken one of two shapes. New York, Boston, and San Francisco saw a sharp increase in the total number of employees using the office in March and steadily increased month by month. However, companies in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago brought their people back in two massive waves in May and July.
Understanding how regional returns are going is only a piece of the puzzle. A broad spectrum of companies and industries is represented, so we dug a bit deeper. Office returns have varied wildly from industry to industry nationally, but some consistencies provide workplace leaders with valuable insights:
- Industries that waited to bring people back to the office achieved steadier growth over the year. Retail, Utilities, Mining, and Oil and Gas businesses all had over 600% increase in employees returning to the office from January to November.
- The tech industry, in particular, is an excellent example of the efficacy of the incremental RTO approach. It was among the bottom three industries in bringing people back to the office in Q1 2021 but experienced 3,000% growth from January to November.
- However, many industries with large office returns in February before vaccines started rolling out fell sharply over the summer. Government and Construction had more than 50% of their desks booked in February but lost momentum over the summer.
There are many variables - regulations, vaccine availability/acceptance, personal circumstances - that go into every employee’s decision on whether or not they work from the office. As we said, there isn’t a good path for every company to follow, except for change management preparedness. The most successful industries and organizations are patient with their employees and do not enforce a hard return date. They’re communicating their expectations, listening to employee feedback, and modifying their workplace strategy in real-time.
Employee Bounce Levels Off
We introduced a new workplace KPI called “employee bounce rate” that tracked how many people only worked from the office once a month when we first launched Robin’s RTO reports. We thought it was a good indicator of whether an organization had done an excellent job of communicating the importance and value of their office experience to employees.
There are several lessons to be drawn from the employee bounce rate data:
- Companies that set a high expectation of employees’ office days seem to have counterintuitively caused a higher bounce rate and, ultimately, lower long-term office attendance.
- The bounce rate was highest (30%) in January and February 2021. At the time, the average person worked from the office about 6-7 times per month. But what we’ve learned as the year unfolded is that employees don’t want to go into the office routinely. Both the bounce rate AND average numbers of office days have gone down as the year progressed. This trend indicates that people are comfortable working from the office; they just prefer remote work for their day-to-day activities.
- Large companies (500+ employees) see the highest bounce rates. The role of the White House’s recent vaccination mandate in these figures is unclear and something we’ll be looking into in 2022.
Australia and New Zealand’s Highly Predictable Unpredictability
When we kicked off Robin’s monthly RTO Report series, we highlighted Australia and New Zealand as two countries that served as a 3-month window into the future for US companies. The country’s COVID infection rates were low, the All Blacks were playing in front of their fans again, and office capacities averaged 50% (the US peaked at 25% in October). With Delta’s arrival, local authorities implemented another lockdown, and we saw office capacity plunge to just 10% over the summer. The region still hasn’t fully recovered as office capacity is still hovering around 15%.
With national and local governments each implementing their unique COVID responses, business leaders must build a highly adaptable workplace. Here are three qualities of a sound strategy:
- Businesses that embrace flexible work models are better positioned to manage rapid change than those with rigid guidelines and hard RTO dates.
- We are living in historical times as the workplace is undergoing a rapid - perhaps overdue - transformation that will reverberate for decades. There are no wrong answers as long as employees’ feedback is integrated into the workplace strategy. Workplace leaders must proactively seek input from their people and analyze workplace analytics to optimize their office over time.
- Prioritize people over places. The office now operates more as a clubhouse where employees come to work with the tools and people they need rather than the traditional “beehive.” Organizations need to kill their sacred office cows and build the best possible office to support their people.
No one can predict a global return to the office. Many are saying it will never happen. Given all this uncertainty, there are two rock-solid statistics the data shows:
- Hybrid work schedules are here to stay.
- Globally, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are employees’ favorite days to come into the office. Friday, of course, is the least popular.
The United States is Primed to Return to the Office in 2022
We believe that US employees will return to the office in droves in 2022 given the following information:
- The US saw 12 straight months of growth in employees returning to the office in 2021. Businesses started 2021 with just under a 5% office capacity back in January; however, numbers picked up steadily throughout the year and hit 10% in June. Many companies kept their return dates for the late summer, and office capacity had two big surges in July and September.
- The average US office capacity hit over 25% in October.
- Based on Robin’s desk booking data, the average US office maintained a 20% or above month-over-month increase in employee office usage every month except August.
- There was a dip in December, likely due to holiday vacations and Omicron concerns. It’s impossible to gauge the impact of Omicron just yet, given the expected seasonal dropoff, but we’ll have a better sense once we analyze the data from January.
The US has maintained momentum returning to the office for most of this year. We expect to see a dip in office usage as local authorities manage Omicron but anticipate people to return to the office in more significant numbers throughout 2022, barring any major developments.
Need Help Managing Your Dynamic Hybrid Workplace?
As organizations grapple with accommodating new regulations and challenges in the New Year, it has become evident that flexibility is a central ingredient to building a productive and engaged workforce.
It’s more important than ever that leaders have insight into how their employees use the office and its resources to enhance the workplace experience for today’s distributed workforce.
Do you have the tools to ensure a successful transition to flexible work? Schedule a free Robin demo today to find out.