The Return to the Office is Not Happening the Way Politicians and CEOs Hoped

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Last month, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, desperate to kickstart the downtown economy that’s still lagging due to remote jobs, insisted to workers “you can’t stay at home in your pajamas all day.”

A slew of new data this week shows that he was wrong, and workers in NYC and around the country are giving him the flannel-covered cold shoulder.

Toast of the Town

Before the pandemic, office workers were the lifeblood of Manhattan, accounting for one-third of all NYC jobs and two-thirds of the city’s gross domestic product. For every overstressed trader who drinks way too much coffee, there was a job for a barista to fire up the espresso machine. But then Covid turned Manhattan — where 70% of the 2.6 million people working there pre-pandemic were commuters — into a concrete jungle without all the animals.

Some politicians and business leaders expressed hope that office life would return to something like normal, but the latest data says it’s just not happening:

  • The amount of vacant and about-to-be-vacated office space in Manhattan hit a record-high 17.4% in February, according to brokerage Colliers. The office occupancy rate in New York City — basically the percentage of people turning up to the workplace — was 37% last week compared to pre-pandemic volume, according to Kastle Systems.
  • The average office occupancy rate in the 10 busiest US markets was only 39% of what it was before the pandemic. Even in Texas, home to lax Covid restrictions, occupancy rates are only 52% in Austin, 48% in Houston, and 47% in Dallas compared to before Covid.

Back to Normal, Not to the Office: Attendance at NBA games is 93% of pre-pandemic levels, according to ESPN data. Traffic at TSA checkpoints is 87% of what it was, seated dining bookings on Open Table are 86% of what they were, and movie theater attendance monitored by Box Office Mojo is at 80% of what it was. People might like their pajamas during work hours, but clearly find no trouble getting dressed for other things that involve leaving the house.