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Here's Why Europe is Leading the Return to Office

July 26th, 2022 | 5 min. read

Here's Why Europe is Leading the Return to Office
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VergeSense

VergeSense is the leading spatial intelligence platform trusted by fiscally savvy and employee-first companies across the world.

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Around the world, the hybrid and flexible approach gained popularity in 2021 and into 2022, giving employees more freedom when it comes to their use of the workplace.

As offices everywhere began reopening their doors, there were challenges along the way, and some regions have approached their responses differently than others. Variants and surges of COVID repeatedly derailed reopening plans, and facilities teams weren’t prepared for wildly unpredictable attendance. Today’s workplace is continuously changing, and employees want to use the workplace in new and different ways more than ever before.

Smart companies are listening to their employees and providing the new or updated policies and work environments that employees desire — particularly Gen Z employees who are newer to the workforce. Shelley Hernandez, a recruiter at Pinterest, says, “The ability to have flexibility is very important to [Gen Z]. Some want to be in an office all the time because they love interacting with coworkers, some want to be fully remote because they want to be in a quieter space, [and] some want a combination.”

But different regions are adapting and updating their policies at different rates — with the U.S. experiencing more friction than other parts of the world. According to research from JLL, Europe overall is seeing that office use is back up to 70% of pre-pandemic levels. Why is the US so much further behind Europe’s return to the office? 

According to Bloomberg’s March 2022 Back to Work Barometer (taken across 10 cities in the U.S.), office utilization is at just over 36.8% compared with pre-pandemic levels. And in the U.S., only 4% of employers are requiring their employees to come back to the office full-time

Because governmental workplace COVID restrictions have now been largely lifted everywhere in Europe and North America, each company has been left to figure out what makes sense for their people. One approach isn’t necessarily better than the other, but the two regions have approached this ambiguous time very differently.

It’s difficult to generalize and present trends about the entire U.S., as the country varies so drastically politically, economically, and in how local governments have responded to COVID. 

We’ll go over three major factors that could contribute to differences in return to office trends between the U.S. and other parts of the world.

3 Barriers to the Return to Office in the US

1. Car-Centric Urban Sprawl and High Cost of Gas in the US

The U.S. is a massive country with severely underfunded and underdeveloped networks of public transit. Some major cities have good transit networks, but there are few examples of areas with public transit systems that stretch well outside of the city. 

This leaves the vast majority of the American population, even many within major cities, to rely on their cars to get to work. Not only is driving generally expensive, including car maintenance and insurance payments, but with gas costing an average of $4.495 a gallon, people across the U.S. have realized they’re losing money by coming into the office. So why would they if they can easily do their job well from home?

By contrast, many European countries have robust rail systems that work within cities and outside of them, making it easy, affordable, and environmentally friendly for employees to go into the city to their offices.

U.S. employers are now experimenting with satellite offices, coworking subscriptions, and gas and parking stipends to encourage office attendance and mitigate employee frustration. By optimizing space planning using spatial intelligence data that incorporates true utilization numbers, your organization can meet employee needs while maintaining a right-sized real estate portfolio.

2. Greater Vaccine Hesitancy and Polarization in the US

Vaccines against COVID-19 have been widely available for over 18 months in the US, and still only 67% of the country’s 300 million inhabitants are vaccinated

Some companies put policies in place that required unvaccinated employees to continue working from home in order to prevent the spread of COVID in the office. Others at least required unvaccinated employees to take a COVID test every time they come into the office. 

This deterred a significant portion of the population — the unvaccinated — from returning to the office, even just on a hybrid basis or occasionally for a team meeting, 

In Europe, vaccines didn’t become available until several months later than in the US, but the uptake was quicker and more widespread. The vaccination rates in Europe vary significantly by country, but in general the rate is higher — 72.8% across all EU countries, with some much higher, like Spain (85.7%) and Denmark (82%). Because of this, fewer workplaces had to put vaccination policies in place, which removed that barrier from anyone returning to the office. 

3. The US’s Always-On Work Culture and Constant Connectivity

Even before the pandemic, the U.S. had become known for its always-on work culture and lack of work-life balance. At some companies, this norm has actually endured in the pandemic since people can (and are often encouraged to) work from anywhere. 

Companies have seen that some of their employees work better, and more, from home: a 2021 workplace report found that 55% of respondents reported working more hours remotely than at the physical office. Logically, that means there’s less incentive for employers to ask their teams to return to the office. 

Conversely, the EU passed The Right to Disconnect in January 2021, a directive “that enables those who work digitally to disconnect outside their working hours.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that every person has perfect work-life balance in Europe, but the social norms do point to a clearer, and some would say healthier, separation between work and personal life. Going into an office and leaving at the end of the day can help some employees keep that balance.

Reopening your office? Unlock the potential of your spaces with data, not guesses.

Whether you’re in Europe or the U.S., planning a company’s return to office takes time and flexibility. Surveying employees to see how and where they hope to work is the first step, and it’s important to run the results by executives to show them the needs and desires of their employees. Then, analyze accurate data of office utilization at various stages of reopening with the VergeSense Spatial Intelligence Platform to help workplace experience teams chart a path forward and regularly check how well it’s working.

Unlock more trends and insights to guide your organization’s return to office planning in the 2022 State of Workplace Data Report