Remote and hybrid working has proved persistent in the UK as office workers have embraced their new found flexibility and businesses cope with the ebb and flow of Covid infections. London, in particular, continues to see depressed workplace traffic, with commuter volumes 50% below pre-pandemic levels.
With politicians demanding a ‘swift return’ to the office, the debate in the UK centres on the degree to which remote or hybrid really is the future of work and the economic implications of any permanent shift.
Looking globally however, the experience of British office workers is far from the norm. Using the ‘workplaces’ series in Google’s mobility data, we can discern four distinct patterns of workplace return that are playing out across cities worldwide.
“Old” normal cities – cities that have regained at least 80% of pre-pandemic office footfall. Seoul, Taiwan, Copenhagen and Madrid. In sharp contrast to the narrative that UK workers have largely embraced remote working during the pandemic, employees in Asian cities such as Seoul and Taiwan have in fact been back at their desks for almost a year. Office footfall across advanced East Asian economies has been near pre-pandemic levels since June, rarely dropping below 80% of January 2020 levels. Several European cities, such as Copenhagen, Madrid and Lisbon, have also raced back to pre-pandemic normality after the lifting of Covid restrictions earlier this year.
Slow recovery cities – cities that have regained 65 to 80% of pre-pandemic office footfall: Paris, Berlin, Chicago and Los Angeles. Much of continental Europe, as well as the Midwest and west of the US, continue to see office footfall at between 65-80% of pre-pandemic levels, with a gradual trend upwards as Covid restrictions recede. Cities such as Paris and Berlin are at about 75% of pre-Covid office capacity, creeping ahead of previous highs in October 2021 (while Omicron temporarily derailed office return over the winter).
“Doughnut” cities – cities seeing 50 to 65% of pre-pandemic office footfall: New York and London: In contrast to continental Europe, UK cities, particularly London, as well as the US East Coast, remain resolutely wedded to hybrid working for the time being. Across Boston, New York, Washington DC, and London, Edinburgh and Cardiff, office footfall has remained at 50-65% of pre-pandemic levels for almost twelve months.
“Anywhere Cities” – cities seeing less than 50% of pre-pandemic office footfall: San Francisco: A few cities still experience severely depressed office footfall months after the lifting of Covid restrictions. In part, this is due to the high number of workers in the tech sector can, thanks to remote working technology, work from anywhere in the world.
Office footfall across cities since Covid, using Google Mobility data
Source: TBI analysis of the ‘workplaces’ series in Google Mobility data
While there are naturally a slew of local factors driving the patterns in these cities, three primary factors across cities include:
Sectoral patterns: Professional services workers whose jobs are not technologically bound to a particular location, are generally much more likely to still be working remotely or hybrid than workers in other sectors. San Francisco, where more than 40% of the workforce works in professional services and technology, has therefore lagged behind the rest of the US for workplace recovery. London and New York, where professional services, comprise 35% of the workforce, are in similar situations, particularly compared to secondary cities that are relatively less reliant on professional services, such as Manchester, and where the workplace recovery has been stronger.
Covid policy responses: Cities which experienced lighter, shorter lockdowns – and, by extension, which also experimented less with extended homework – have naturally seen less Covid scarring in terms of office return. Asian cities, which largely suppressed Covid through test-and-trace early in the pandemic, have consequently experienced less disruption in working norms than Europe and North America. Cities in the American south which only had limited lockdowns, such as Houston, have also seen more durable workplace return.
Liveability: More ‘liveable’ cities, with better-quality infrastructure and more economical commuting and housing options, are more likely to entice workers to return to city living after moving elsewhere during Covid. Copenhagen and Madrid, for instance, which regularly rank high on global liveability indices, have seen almost a full recovery in office footfall. London and New York, by contrast, where median rent now takes up around 40% of the average worker’s gross salary, have lagged behind in terms of worker return.
Is there a new future of work?
While Covid is still affecting homeworking patterns across the world, it's clear there isn't a single 'new normal,' either within or across countries: vastly different workplace models may now be taking hold in different parts of the world.
While many cities are back on the road to the old normal, others are adapting more slowly as both businesses and cities seek to embrace the new reality and make less dense, more attractive work and urban spaces. Only time will tell which of these models will win out.
Until then, the future of work may not just depend on the job you do, but where you live too.