We all look forward to a time when we don’t have to speak of the “C” word. As for today, as COVID-19 dictates how economies open and employees reunite in person, we pause to take the temperature around the world of business.
How are various regions and countries faring as we all try to navigate the best path toward a hopeful pandemic end? Vaccines are certainly moving the needle (pun intended!) in many areas toward a sense of normalcy, while other areas lay vulnerable to COVID and the latest variants.
Workplace reopening plans remain in the preliminary stages. Join us here for a lightning-fast trip to see what’s happening in cities around the world right now.
The return to work: a global snapshot
New York City
Office districts are getting busier as workers return to Wall Street, following lifted restrictions on office capacity in May. Styles vary for those returns. JPMorgan wants a full return this month. Goldman Sachs brought their staff back by mid-June. Citigroup is moving ahead with its three-day-a-week hybrid strategy. In Manhattan, unleased office space is the highest it’s been in 30 years, suggesting a slow rebound.
Despite the state repealing most business restrictions last month, offices sit largely empty or at far-reduced capacity. Just 19 percent of employees have returned to offices. Flex work is on the rise as big employers Salesforce, Airbnb and Twitter are subleasing – of which there is 9 million sq. ft. of office space up for grabs. Uber, Apple and Google are looking at September for a more typical work week, still planning a flexible return.
Ontario announced its move to enter step three of its reopening plan by mid July, with indoor dining in restaurants and gyms allowed to finally welcome customers inside. There is a hopeful return to a post-pandemic “normal” in August thanks to soaring vaccination rates, with indoor masking remaining through September. In lockstep with the positive steps forward, the city in partnership with the Toronto Region Board of Trade has launched official playbooks to help businesses plan for a safe return to offices in the downtown core.
Overall, businesses are frustrated with the on-off lockdowns across the country and closed borders. Some companies – like Deloitte – have taken bold new steps toward flexible work models. That was just prior to the latest, strictest lockdown to date in early July as the COVID Delta variant gained speed amidst one of the lowest vaccination rates of any developed country. The feds there are devising ways to support businesses as the lockdown is expected to last at least a month.
The economy here is sluggish on its return, owing to a slow vaccine rollout: only 25 percent of residents were fully vaccinated by late June. Google mobility data shows weekday workplace activity is still down 17 percent while the airport (a key European hub), is seeing half the passengers than it did pre-COVID.
The British government plans to drop most pandemic control measures on July 19 - a move that most health-care professionals roundly question even after it was delayed a month due to the delta variant. Major London employers paused their return to work until the green light is given, though a recent Chamber of Commerce survey found the workers are worried about contracting COVID during the commute. This will be a key concern to address.
Israel has proven to be a case study for the importance of vaccines in returning to life after COVID-19. WeWork has indicated pedestrian traffic in its Israeli buildings is up 20 percent since February, with strong demand for new sales. Meanwhile, Google’s data shows a strong increase in travel to work in Tel Aviv during April, with numbers now close to pre-pandemic levels.
While most offices have fully opened, and transit numbers are about three-quarters of what they were prior to COVID, the city has a low vaccination rate that is proving to be a serious obstacle to maintaining the reopening.
After a recent flareup of COVID, the city tilted back toward work-from-home arrangements as in-office workers dropped 23 percent recently compared to April. Now, restrictions are beginning to ease, yet companies are facing the fact that there are strong preferences toward remote working. Experts predict a slow return to offices and a conservative approach through most of the year.
Last week we learned there will be no fans in the stands during the Olympics as authorities confront rising COVID numbers. The city has moved in and out of emergency lockdowns, and generally is experiencing a slow economic recovery while vaccination rates remain low. Some companies are considering novel approaches to entice employees back to work, including a Tokyo-based company where workers who choose to stay home will pay colleagues who decide to commute to the office.
Employers preparing for all eventualities
This bird’s eye view shows us that, across the world, the return to office pace is measured. In the major global hubs of New York and San Francisco, workplace activity is at most half of where it was pre-COVID. What happens next is sure to be complicated and contingent on external factors like vaccination rates, government maneuvers, accessible transit, and what happens with virus variants.
On that note, we might expect to see booster shots play a big role in businesses being able to stay open and have a chance to thrive. To that end, Pfizer is seeking authorization now in the U.S. to develop such boosters.
There are some hopeful signs of course that the ship could turn. There is job growth this spring, and 14 U.S. states have boosted their GDP back to pre-COVID levels.
Whatever the return to work will look like where you live, the common thread for all companies is to prepare for all eventualities. For help in doing so, check out our guide on The Future of Work(place) that targets technology, real estate, HR, workplace experience and more.