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More D.C.-area employers are coming to terms with telework flexibility and hybrid schedules, survey says

Less than half of employees are expected to be back in the office on a typical workday this fall

Pedestrians walk in downtown Washington. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

Workers in the Washington area have gradually returned to offices since the summer, but a new survey suggests it could be a long wait before downtown regains its pre-pandemic vitality with the majority of the region’s workers back on a daily basis.

Twenty months since the coronavirus pandemic hit the region, forcing hundreds of thousands of workers into telework, many employers remain uncertain about when and how to fully reopen offices amid continuing virus concerns and employee demands for flexibility, according to a study released Monday by the Greater Washington Partnership.

The survey of 164 employers in the District, Maryland and Virginia found less than half of employees are expected to be back in the office on a typical workday this fall. Employers say they expect that number will grow to about two-thirds by summer.

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The report shows how concerns over rising transmission of the delta variant this summer delayed in-person work for much of Washington. In a December survey, the group found employers had said they were expecting 75 percent of their workforce to be back in the office by this fall. It’s the latest indication of a lengthy delay in the region returning to pre-pandemic habits and routines.

“This slowing pace of the return to work sites indicates that the longer the pandemic continues, the more likely that work-from-home and hybrid schedules are going to just be an entrenched business norm,” said John Hillegass, manager of regional mobility and infrastructure at the Greater Washington Partnership, an alliance of chief executives of some of the region’s top employers.

The survey included employers representing nearly 300,000 workers in the greater Washington region — stretching from Baltimore to Richmond — and was conducted from Sept. 9 to Sept. 30. The responses offer a snapshot of how company executives perceive their timeline of resuming in-office operations.

More than half of employers said they plan to require workers to get the coronavirus vaccine or to submit to weekly testing. About 65 percent said they have a quarantine policy for employees exposed to the virus, while more than half say they require staff to wear masks.

The District requires everyone, including those who are vaccinated, to wear a mask in indoor public settings. In Maryland, the state does not have a mask mandate, but some jurisdictions such as Montgomery and Prince George’s counties require people to wear a mask in indoor public venues and businesses. Virginia requires masks in schools.

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A clear majority of Washington-area employers — about 80 percent — said most of their employees will be teleworking at least some of the time this fall, while about half said workers will telework most or all of the time.

Based on the overall responses, about 68 percent of employees would be commuting to work on a given day by next summer, Hillegass said. Respondents ranged from companies with fewer than 50 workers to those with more than 1,000, ranging from government agencies, business and trade organizations, to the financial, construction, health care and education sectors.

While the prospects for a return this year were high after vaccines became available in the spring, new outbreaks and employee concerns about virus variants derailed plans for more widespread in-person work. Business leaders say the return will likely continue to be gradual, with telecommuting remaining an option for many workers post-pandemic.

About half of employers say they expect telework in the new year will remain about the same as it is today.

The expectation that remote and flexible work schedules will continue after the pandemic subsides also appears to be influencing employers’ decisions about office spaces.

One-in-five employers in the survey said they are considering changing their real estate footprint, according to the survey, with about 7 percent saying they are looking at shifting from a single headquarters to having multiple smaller offices scattered across the region.

Such shifts indicate the pandemic will change the way businesses operate. The results could be harmful to large business districts in the region, such as downtown Washington, said JB Holston, the partnership’s chief executive.

“There’s a lot of cascading implications for commercial real estate tax revenue, and for small businesses and small business employment in downtowns,” he said.

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Despite pandemic-related uncertainty, 45 percent of employers surveyed said they are projecting to grow their workforce in the capital region in the next year. Still, 4-in-10 said they expect it will be more difficult to find qualified workers than before the pandemic.

“Employers are definitely feeling the competition for talent and they feel like they have to be a lot more flexible with their workforce than they used to be in order to compete,” Holston said.

For some companies, remote work is becoming a recruitment and retention tool. Almost half of employers in the survey said they are willing to hire people who primarily work remotely, a response to growing demand in the labor market for flexibility.

Although the hustle and bustle of downtown hasn’t returned, activity had been gradually growing in recent months as more workers resume their commutes.

Occupancy rates at commercial buildings, which dropped to about 13 percent of normal at the onset of the pandemic, peaked at 32 percent of pre-pandemic levels in September, according to data from Kastle Systems, which issues millions of Americans key fobs to enter office buildings.

Across the nation’s 10 largest metropolitan areas, office occupancy was at 35 percent of pre-pandemic levels in September, slightly higher than the cautious Washington region, which has consistently lagged other regions in returning workers to office spaces.

Transit ridership has also grown in recent weeks alongside higher usage of downtown parking garages.

Metrorail averaged 213,250 daily weekday passenger trips two weeks ago — the final week before it reduced service after pulling much of its fleet — which is more than 40 percent higher than four months earlier. Parking usage downtown is up 17 percent compared to this time last year, according to parking reservation app Spothero. Parking facilities have seen a 33 percent rise in daily parking rentals in the past three months compared to the previous three months, the company said.

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When employers were asked if they expect the share of employees who commute to the office to change their mode of transportation in the next year, almost 60 percent said they think workers will drive more, while 21 percent said employees are likely to bike and walk more. Only 14 percent of employers expect an increase in the use of public transit.

Business leaders say they worry about the potential for more single vehicle trips as people are called back to the office. And some fear Metro disruptions that have followed an Oct. 12 Blue Line derailment could further push people into cars.

“With the difficulties Metro is having, even now that we’re not fully back to the office, it’s really disruptive,” Holston said. “We’re rooting for [Metro] to address this as rapidly as possible.”