The office is sticky and isn’t going anywhere. Just look at the data.

Sure, it was the year of remote work — but it was also the comeback of the workplace.

​Larry Gadea

Larry Gadea, CEO and founder of Envoy, is tracking the return to the office.

Photo: Envoy

Larry Gadea is CEO and founder of Envoy, a workplace platform that helps modern workplaces manage hybrid work.

June 15 was my first day back in the office. I was one of 35 or 40 people who came in. Not a bad turnout, but still nothing close to our pre-pandemic numbers. I’m a big believer in the power of bringing people together in the workspace, so when attendance dropped after that first day, I knew we had an opportunity to solve a problem — and not just for ourselves. As a company that creates software for hybrid workspaces, how do we rebuild an office where our people feel safe and comfortable and see the benefit of coming in? How do we earn them back to the workplace?

Three things reinforced my confidence and belief in the return of the office this year.

First, we’re social beings and we work best in proximity to one another. Work like collaboration and brainstorming will always be more effective when done in the office. The energy and engagement that comes from working together can’t be replicated over Zoom.

Second, I was excited to see and hear from leaders that were reimagining their workplaces for better employee experiences. This is going to become a defining competitive advantage in the next year.

Third, the numbers. In the spring, the U.S. hit the 100 million vaccination mark. We saw an initial 25% bump in workplace traffic across companies of all sizes, industries and locations. And yes, there were a few dips in the year — holidays, downtime during summer and, of course, the delta variant. But the office has proven remarkably resilient. Overall workplace traffic is up almost 80% since the start of 2021.

Tracking the return

Part of our job is to track how well our network of 14,000-plus office locations are managing the return. To make sense of 2021 — and to better predict what might happen in 2022 — we dug into our de-identified data of millions of employees and visitors who returned to the workplace this year.

Large cities saw an increase in traffic. New York City and San Francisco workplace traffic rose 183% and 101% respectively since the start of the year. Even mid-sized cities like Denver and Austin received “return to office” tailwinds with over 50% growth since Labor Day.

Workplace traffic surged in these states (below shows growth since January):

  • New York: ⬆179%
  • Colorado: ⬆124%
  • Florida: ⬆121%
  • California: ⬆115%
  • Illinois: ⬆94%

How we worked in 2021

The hybrid trend, splitting the workweek between in-office and home, appeared in fall 2020 when office workers started to return in small numbers. Since then, it’s become the norm.

This year, nearly 70% of employees came into the office between Tuesday and Thursday, with the most popular day being Wednesday. On average, employees went into the office twice a week.

For those that used hot-desking, 46% reserved a desk one day per week; 26% reserved a desk two days per week with Tuesday/Wednesday as the most popular combo.

The engineering, IT, finance, sales and marketing teams booked desks more frequently than any other teams in 2021.

A few takeaways: I suspect many take advantage of the midweek days to collaborate with co-workers in the office and use Mondays and Fridays for heads-down work, either at home or at another remote location. The sweet spot for number of days in-office will likely remain two or three days given the demand for hybrid is increasing.

The fall rebound

Even with the slight return-to-office dips in July, total workplace traffic has increased nearly 20% since Labor Day. Why the dip? Seasonality. More people take time off work from June through August. And the delta variant hit its peak during the summer.

What’s next?

Forecasting next year, I predict a 50% increase year-over-year in people going into the office.

Next year, we’ll see a lot of trial and error as companies figure out how to draw more of their people back to the office. In the workplace, the trend will be the sharing of everything — from desks to parking spaces. We’ve gone from individual offices to cubicles to assigned desks in open spaces to shared desks — and I don’t see us going back. Another trend to watch for: locker space. Without an assigned desk, people will want a place to store their belongings.

Workplace apps that make work life easier are the next big thing. We’ll see more automation of tasks on the phone, like submitting IT tickets, finding an available conference room or checking who’s in the office and when so teammates can reserve desks together. Choosing where you sit based on what type of work you’re doing; virtual mapping; touchless access; reserving your desk, lunch or parking space; the verification of vaccine and COVID-19 test results: All this and more will be available through an app right on your phone.

Ten years out, I’m predicting many won’t have designated offices but they’ll be working out of offices. I call this trend “one workplace.” The demand for co-working space has risen dramatically. We’re seeing companies start to monetize extra desk space in the wake of hybrid and remote work. Fast-forward a decade, it’ll be the norm for everyday companies to rent out their space — desks, event space, meeting rooms, roof decks, anything and everything.

In 30 years, VR and AR will bring people into a “virtual” workplace on those remote days. VR will provide infinite desk space. And with AR, imagine wearing glasses that give you information about the people around you — a name, department, favorite foods, etc. Augmented-reality knowledge will help you get to know your co-workers.

The future of work won’t be five days in the office. Nor will it be entirely remote. The answer lies somewhere in between. No matter the industry, a successful workplace is about creating a great experience for people so they choose to come in and work. My prediction: The companies that win in the next decade will be those that think deeply about what it means to create a workplace that works better than ever.

The data in this piece looks at Envoy workplace entries from Jan.1, 2021 through Nov. 1, 2021 unless otherwise noted.

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