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Office return is for real this time, WeWork says of post-Labor Day surge

Sept. 16, 2022 Updated Fri., Sept. 16, 2022 at 7:05 p.m.

Members work on laptop computers in a common room at the Embarcadero WeWork Cos Inc. offices in San Francisco in October 2017.   (Mike Short/Bloomberg )
Members work on laptop computers in a common room at the Embarcadero WeWork Cos Inc. offices in San Francisco in October 2017.  (Mike Short/Bloomberg )
By Jo Constantz Bloomberg

WeWork Inc. had its busiest four-day stretch of the year last week as the back-to-school season coincided with high-profile return-to-office mandates.

In the week after Labor Day on Sept. 5, bookings by all-access and on-demand members surged 20% compared to the weekly average at WeWork’s 700 office locations worldwide.

Global keycard swipes soared over 70% compared to the same week in 2021, when the delta variant of the coronavirus scuttled RTO plans.

Some of the world’s largest and most influential companies, like Apple Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., chose Labor Day as the latest line in the sand to call workers back to their desks, though many employees want to keep their flexibility.

More than 1,200 New York Times staffers pledged to work from home earlier this week in protest of the company’s renewed RTO push.

RTO seems to be for real this time, said Peter Greenspan, WeWork’s global head of real estate, noting that the data represents 40 million square feet of office space.

“This September feels more like the real return to the office that has been touted for 21/2 years now,” he said. “You’ve heard, ‘Return to the office, return to the office, now it’s after this holiday, now it’s after this summer.’

“This data, at least to us, indicates that this is a stronger return to the office than the previous ones.”

WeWork’s bookings data includes reservations made by all-access and on-demand members for desks and conference rooms, but doesn’t include dedicated users who reserve space on a monthly or long-term basis.

Keycard swipes track the foot traffic of all users.

Still, offices aren’t bustling the way they used to: Security company Kastle Systems, which tracks keycard swipes at offices throughout the United States, shows average office occupancy has hovered just above 40% of pre-COVID levels nationwide since this past spring.

Many company leaders will have to walk the tightrope of maintaining employee engagement in a competitive labor market while figuring out what do with expensive real estate portfolios, Greenspan said.

“We’re going to see how different companies start to navigate what is a super complicated strategy.”

But office occupancy may not follow a linear trend back to “normal.” Harvard Business School professor Prithwiraj Choudhury says his research group found through field experiments that teams spending about 25% of time together in the office saw the best outcomes, from engagement and communication to productivity and work quality.

Under an arrangement like this, team members could meet in person once a week, one week out of the month or for a couple of weeks every quarter.

Choudhury said he’s not surprised to see a jump in demand for office space now, since people want and need to meet in person.“The week after Labor Day sounds like the right time to meet because people have been traveling, vacationing, whatnot. I expect longer term in the data to see these periods when colocation spikes up,” he said.

“Maybe there’ll be some days in the month or some weeks in the quarter where we see a lot of office colocation, but then people go back to working remotely for the rest of the year. That’s the pattern that I expect to see in the data steady state.”

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