OPINIONFinancing

Employees start returning to the office

Telecommuting has been in decline as pandemic worries ease. That could help some restaurants, but commercial areas may never be the same, says RB’s The Bottom Line.
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When the pandemic hit last March, millions of Americans lost their jobs. And many more started working from home, replacing much of office culture with Zoom meetings.

The result was hard on restaurants that built their business on people going to and from work, forcing many to adjust or close outright.

But as people return to jobs lost during the pandemic, many are also returning to offices. According to U.S. Labor Department data released on Friday, the percentage of people working from home decreased to 16.6% in May, from 18.3% in April. That is a post-pandemic telecommuting low.

It is also less than half the rate in May of last year, during the depths of the pandemic, when 35.4% of the workforce—48.7 million workers—were working from sofas or makeshift home offices. Some 23 million employees have returned to the office since then, based on federal data.

That, along with overall job growth, is populating workplaces once again. Yet they are still far from being as populated as they once were and they may not return to those levels for a long time, if ever.

For one thing, the economy remains 7 million jobs short of where it was before the pandemic. Restaurants specifically remain 1.5 million jobs short. A large portion of the workforce has yet to return and many jobs have not reappeared.

For another, many employees have grown fond of working from home and may continue to spend at least part of the time working from those makeshift offices.

A Stanford Graduate School of Business survey of some 30,000 Americans found that 20% of workdays will be spent at home—four times the pre-pandemic levels.

Similarly, according to The Conference Board, nearly 40% of organizations expected 40% or more of their workforce will work remotely. Before the pandemic, nearly three-quarters of organizations had fewer than 10% of workers remaining at home. That suggests a big shift in telecommuting that remains a long-term issue.

That, of course, has major implications for the industries built around those workers being in the office—like, say, fast-casual salad chains. “The shift to WFH will directly reduce spending in major city centers by at least 5% to 10% relative to the pre-pandemic situation,” the Stanford study said.

There are many reasons people like working from home. They don’t have to spend a chunk of their lives in a car; they can be more productive; and they have fewer issues with child care. Some employees are choosing to quit rather than return to the office, according to Bloomberg.

As such, employers are building flexibility into return-to-office plans. The technology firm Apple wants its workers back in September at least three days a week, with some staff members being given the opportunity to work remotely for two days.

Cerner Corp., a health care IT firm in North Kansas City, is giving employees the option of working from home part time, according to the Kansas City Star.

All of these issues add some uncertainty for restaurants that built their business in central cities. Those concepts were hammered last year, more than almost any other sector outside of eatertainment and upscale concepts. The return to offices is clearly good news, but the prospect that not all workers will return full time puts some of those concepts on shakier ground and will only drive more of those concepts to the safer havens of the suburbs.

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