Tougher Return-to-Office Policies Are No Remedy for Half-Empty Buildings

Tougher Return-to-Office Policies Are No Remedy for Half-Empty Buildings
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Office owners are struggling with near record-high vacancy rates.

First, the good news for office landlords: A post-Labor Day bump nudged return-to-office rates in mid-September to their highest level since the onset of the pandemic.

Now the bad: Office attendance in big cities is still barely half of what it was in 2019, and company get-tough measures are proving largely ineffective at boosting that rate much higher. 

Indeed, a number of forces—from the prospect of more Covid-19 cases in the fall to a weakening economy—could push the return rate into reverse, property owners and city officials say.

More than before, chief executives at blue-chip companies are stepping up efforts to fill their workspace. 

Facebook parent Meta Platforms, Amazon and JPMorgan Chase are among the companies that have recently vowed to get tougher on employees who don’t show upIn August, Meta told employees they could face disciplinary action if they regularly violate new workplace rules.  

But these actions haven’t yet moved the national return rate needle much, and a majority of companies remain content to allow employees to work at least part-time remotely despite the tough talk. 

Most employees go into offices during the middle of the week, but floors are sparsely populated on Mondays and Fridays. In Chicago, some September days had a return rate of over 66%. But it was below 30% on Fridays. In New York, it ranges from about 25% to 65%, according to Kastle Systems, which tracks security-card swipes. 

Overall, the average return rate in the 10 U.S. cities tracked by Kastle Systems matched the recent high of 50.4% of 2019 levels for the week ended Sept. 20, though it slid a little below half the following week. 

The disappointing return rates are another blow to office owners who are struggling with vacancy rates near record highs. The national office average vacancy rose to 19.2% last quarter, just below the historical peak of 19.3% in 1991, according to 

Moody’s Analytics preliminary third-quarter data. 

Business leaders in New York, Detroit, Seattle, Atlanta and Houston interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said they have seen only slight improvements in sidewalk activity and attendance in office buildings since Labor Day.

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102 Responses to "Tougher Return-to-Office Policies Are No Remedy for Half-Empty Buildings"

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