Hello and welcome to the Chartr Sunday edition! Today we’re zooming out on one of the largest societal shifts of the 21st century so far, exploring how the way we work — or specifically where we work — has changed. Whether you log on from home, are still fully onsite, or have found something in between, we hope you enjoy our deep dive into what a large part of the American “workspace” actually looks like in 2023.
The new abnormal
In February this year, American office occupancy hit a pretty significant milestone on its journey to recover to pre-pandemic levels. Data gathered by Kastle Systems, which tracks security pass swipes for offices in 10 major cities across the US, warranted articles that featured experts pondering whether this was “as good as it gets”. The figure that occupancy rates had exceeded for the first time in just under 3 years? 50%.
February 2020 has been the benchmark month that dates have since been measured against. At that time, offices bustled with workers as they had for decades. Trains, city streets, local eateries, and coffee shops buzzed with people on their way to and from work. Indeed, before the pandemic, Kastle's data showed that occupancy levels mainly fluctuated on Fridays, and even then only to ~90%.
Of course, no-one needs reminding of what happened next. With businesses shuttered and travel restricted, office occupancy fell to less than 15% of normal in April 2020, and America’s cityscapes have been in a slow recovery ever since. Indeed, while calls to return to the office from companies like Google and Goldman Sachs intensify, city offices haven’t proved any more alluring to at-home and hybrid workers this year. The occupancy figure has hovered at about that 50% benchmark for the last 4 months.
The one thing that did bounce back quickly? Traffic.
Traffic is back
The sharp rebound in traffic — even in dense cities like New York — is particularly interesting. Data from the MTA reveals that Subway usage in the Big Apple is hovering around 70% of what it used to be pre-pandemic — a figure that, like office occupancy, hasn't budged much this year. However, usage of the cities bridges and tunnels has been back to normal pretty much since late 2021, recovering quickly from the traffic-free days of the pandemic.
Mining from home
Obviously, remote working isn't suitable for every profession. Data from the American Community Survey confirms what you might expect; writers and authors, economists and market researchers, software developers, management analysts and mathematical scientists are the occupations with the highest share of remote workers (all north of 60%). On the flip side, butchers, metal and plastic workers, mining machine operators and highway maintenance workers are all overwhelmingly working as normal, with just 2-3% of people in those occupations working remotely.
If bosses are finding it tricky to convince their employees to return to the office, they might not have any more luck with new recruits either. In fact, search interest for remote work is still hovering around all-time high levels according to Indeed data from June.
In a recent Pew Research Center survey, some 71% of US teleworkers said that logging in from home was helping them better manage their work and personal lives, while 56% said they were better able to get the job done and meet deadlines too. While working out where exactly the post-pandemic work culture will eventually settle feels impossible (though many tried at the time and continue to try) for now, at least, it seems that many are sticking to the new setups that were afforded by the pandemic, when they can.
That may be to the chagrin of some employers who’d rather staff return to the office full-time, especially in light of a slew of new studies debunking the claims of the efficiency of remote work. One study, which randomly assigned data-entry workers to either at home or the office, found that the office workers were ~18% more productive.
Of course, most of us don't want to hear stats like "18% more productive" when evaluating whether to work from home or not. The liberation from commuting, the extra minutes in bed and the ability to balance family responsibilities are hard to beat. And, remote work also makes clocking off an hour or two early a lot easier. Indeed, employees have reshaped the structure of their workdays, giving rise to a trend that the NYTimes called "afternoon fun" — as workers start to indulge in leisure activities, even lengthy ones like golf, in the middle of the week.
Par for the course
A record number of people are fitting in a round of golf between Zoom calls, according to a pair of researchers from Stanford. They analyzed geolocation data from over 3,400 golf courses, and found a staggering 83% surge in midweek golf trips in August 2022 compared to August 2019. Notably, Wednesday afternoons at 4pm witnessed an astronomical surge of 278% in golf games played between 2019 and 2022.
So, what does the future of work look like? Well, unsurprisingly, we all want to have our cake and eat it too. If we can work remotely, many of us want to. If we can add a little leisure into our daily routine, we will. Indeed, we seem to be entering a phase in which remote work is just another benefit to be negotiated over between workers and employers, like health cover, vacation days and pay. As Carrie Fisher reportedly said: "Everything is negotiable. Whether or not the negotiation is easy is another thing".
Currently, those negotiations have taken us to ~50% of the way back to "normal". We wouldn't want to guess on where things are in 10 years — 60%, 70% or 80% all seem plausible — but all the way back to 100%? That seems a very big stretch — particularly as I write this final paragraph with a cup of coffee on Sunday morning... from home.