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Feel free to call it a comeback: the long-awaited return to the office 

Jonathan Weindel
By Jonathan Weindel Head of Data Analytics

While 2020 was the year the world shut down, 2021 was the year it reopened, albeit cautiously.

We can’t forget the headlines: 100 million vaccinations administered. Delta variant soars. Hybrid work is on the rise. To reopen or not to reopen? 

Despite some mixed messages and a few false starts, many companies chose to reopen their workplaces this year—and employees and visitors returned. Here are the data trends we saw in 2021: 

  • Workplace traffic had its ups and downs over the past year. But despite the fluctuation, overall workplace traffic has increased nearly 80% since January. 
  • In August, we wrote about the three waves of workplace traffic since the start of the pandemic: traffic from essential workers, traffic from vaccinated employees, and a slight lull in traffic due to summer and the Delta variant. 
  • Since Labor Day, workplace traffic is up over 20%, indicating a fall rebound wave. 

Tracking the 2021 return 

As you can see from the chart below, workplace traffic is up nearly 80% since January.

Major shift: more employees coming on-site

Workplace traffic consists of both employees and visitors (i.e., contractors, vendors, food service, etc.). To understand who’s come on-site over the past year, we looked at the proportion of traffic each group has driven. 

  • In October 2020, employees made up 38% of all workplace traffic. By November of 2021, the percentage increased to 50%. 
  • We expect the percentage of employee workplace traffic to continue to rise as many businesses reopen next year and there’s a greater demand to be on-site. 

New York, New York! The city outpaces all other cities in return surge

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 50+ percent growth since Labor Day. 

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

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

The largest cities in the U.S. saw increases in foot traffic to the office.

  • New York, NY: ⬆183% 
  • Washington, DC⬆106% 
  • San Francisco, CA: ⬆101%
  • Philadelphia, PA⬆64% 
  • Houston, TX⬆60% 
  • Chicago, IL⬆58% 
  • Miami, FL⬆53% 

How we worked in 2021: Employees preferred Wednesdays and 2x a week in-office

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

Hot-desking is a flexible setting arrangement where employees can reserve a desk for the day. 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. 14% of people reserved a desk three days per week with Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday being the most popular combo. 9% of people reserved a desk four days per week; and only 5% of people reserved a desk five days per week.

Some desks are hotter than others. 43% of companies had at least one desk that accounted for more than 10% of total bookings. And, 78% have desks that were used less than 1% of the time. 

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

By industry – IT leads the rise of RTO with 2x as much workplace traffic since January

Workplace traffic is particularly strong in the following industries since the start of 2021:

  • Information Technology: 113% (over 2x)
  • Automotive, Retail, Hotels, Media: 103% (over 2x)
  • Telecommunications: 89%
  • Financial industry: 87% 

The Fall rebound – Since Labor Day, traffic is up over 20%

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? – A 50% increase in people coming in next year

Next year’s forecasted trends look promising. We predict a 50% increase year-over-year in people going into the office. 

Apple, Lyft, Asana, and many more companies plan to reopen. Employers are investing in the latest safety technology for employee peace of mind. Tech that can verify proof of vaccination and negative Covid test results

With the anticipated surge of reopenings and new safety features, we should see a spike in employee returns as early as March or April of 2022. 

The data in this piece looks at workplace entries from 1/1/2021-11/1/2021 unless otherwise noted.

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Jonathan Weindel
Author Bio Jonathan Weindel

Jonathan is currently the Head of Data Analytics at Envoy. He is a results-driven analytics leader, with a passion for creating data-driven insights, tools, and applications.