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What To Make Of The Gradual Return Of The In-Office Workforce

Anecdotally speaking, the physical world of work is feeling like a pretty lonely place these days.

San Francisco’s once vibrant downtown area is empty, according to local reports. The city is opening back up, meaning people can go back to their offices, eat in restaurants and visit museums again. But the cable cars are still sitting still, and ridership on public transportation remains down by 90 percent because even given the option to return to their offices by the state, local tech and office workers aren’t exactly enthused to return.

“San Francisco can say, ‘Hey, it’s cool to open back up.’ But what’s changed?” said tech executive Connor Fee in a San Francisco media report. “The virus is still there, and there’s no vaccine.”

Fee falls into the 58 percent of consumers, according to PYMNTS/PayPal survey data, who report a basic unwillingness to go back to his pre-pandemic routines, including office work, until there is a COVID-19. Until then, he noted, he and his wife have packed up their essentials and relocated temporarily to an Airbnb in Southern California.

But not every city is San Francisco, and when one looks at a place like Dallas-Fort Worth, which has led the nation for the last two months in the number of workers returning to their offices, the story is a bit different. According to local reports, 43.3 percent of D-FW office employees were back at their desks — the largest share of any metro area in the country. That’s an increase from the 36 percent observed in September and the fewer than 25 percent in early April when shutdowns were at their national peak.

Nationally, however, the reality seems to be somewhere between San Francisco and Dallas. According to Kastle Systems, cited in the D-FW report, only 27.4 percent of workers have left home to return to the office nationally.

“The nation continues to return to offices, with building occupancy rates rising in nine out of the 10 cities,” the researchers who prepared the Kastle Systems report said in the D-FW report.

But the situation, the data indicated, is highly regional. In hard-hit New York City, 83 percent of workers are still at home, while Houston and Austin, Texas, office occupancy is at 36.8 and 35.4 percent, respectively, the D-FW report stated.

What does it mean for the fate of physical work nationwide? Many major employers have already officially said they aren’t expecting their workers back at their desks until sometime in the summer of 2021 after a vaccine is in wide release.

Moreover, as consumers have increasingly shifted their lives to digital, their enthusiasm for keeping it that way has grown consistently across commerce categories in the last six months PYMNTS has been surveying them. There is at least something to be said for the possibility that consumers who have learned to love digital commerce have also learned to love teleworking.

And, case counts are spiking. Localities are putting up new restrictions and limits of movement to try and limit the spread. While workers are flocking back to their desk in Dallas, doctors in El Paso are encouraging residents to stay home lest their hospital be overwhelmed by patients.

That means the slow but steady stream of workers heading back to their desks may soon be reduced to a trickle as case counts continue to climb nationwide and being back in the office feels more harrowing than it did even three weeks ago.

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