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About 60% of respondents anticipated less than a third of workers would return to the office by early September because of coronavirus risks. Some are planning for a portion of staff to still be working remotely even next summer.
Many employers in the region around Washington, D.C. have no immediate plans to call most of their employees back to offices due to concerns about the coronavirus, and some expect that worksites won’t be full again even by next summer, according to a new survey.
The Greater Washington Partnership released the results of the poll on Monday. It was conducted between Aug. 10 and 28 and includes responses from about 430 employers in various industries across the metro areas that cover D.C., Baltimore, and Richmond, Virginia. The survey offers clues about the pace at which workers could return to offices after months of working from home.
Of the employers surveyed, 18% said none of their employees were likely to return to traditional worksites after Labor Day. Another 43% said the share coming back would be between 10% and 30%. Only about one-quarter said 70% or more of their workers would be onsite.
About one-third of surveyed employers are still unsure of what their worksite plans will be for summer of 2021. But the employers surveyed who are planning that far ahead said, on average, that only about 72% of workers would be back in their offices by next summer.
Many employers voiced concerns about risks workers could face commuting on mass transit while the highly contagious respiratory illness the virus causes remains a public health threat.
Employers also expressed an interest in testing workers for the virus, but about half said they would not do so if each test costs over $50.
The question of when large numbers of people will return to offices and other traditional worksites is an important one for city economies. Office workers and others who commute into cities like Washington, D.C. provide a crucial base of customers for businesses like restaurants and retailers in downtowns and other commercial corridors.
Public-facing businesses in many cities are also getting slammed by a drop in tourism brought on by the pandemic.
At the same time, there’s speculation that the virus outbreak could result in permanent changes to where and how people work, possibly leading to a lasting rise in the number of people working remotely. This could also lead to an outflow of people from big cities to mid-sized cities and suburbs. These sorts of trends could alter demand for residential and commercial real estate in different places.
Outside of the D.C. region in recent days, there were signs that major employers are not giving up on the idea of big office buildings.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. is noticing declines in productivity as the company’s employees work from home, especially on Mondays and Fridays, Bloomberg reported on Monday. The bank has told some senior employees they’ll need to return to offices by Sept. 21.
In the Seattle area, outdoor retailer REI said Monday that it had completed the $390 million sale of a newly built 400,000-square-foot office campus to social media giant Facebook.
Facebook says it envisions half of its employees working remotely within the next decade, but the company also indicates that office space will remain important and notes that surveys have found that most of its workers are eager to return to the office.
REI, meanwhile, said in August that it had plans to shift to a “less centralized” headquarters in Seattle, with multiple worksites in the region in and around the city.
The company also said at that time that it would “lean into remote working as an engrained, supported, and normalized model for headquarters employees,” and would offer flexibility for more employees to live in locations away from Seattle.
“The dramatic events of 2020 have challenged us to reexamine and rethink every aspect of our business and many of the assumptions of the past,” REI president and CEO Eric Artz told employees in August, according to the company. “That includes where and how we work.”
Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.