Houston Fumbles Its Early Return-To-Office Lead
Texas boasted it was open for business and touted the nation's highest return-to-office rates in the months after the start of the pandemic. But that energy has stagnated, at least in Houston, according to newly released numbers.
In March 2022, Houston “set the standard for bringing workers back to the office during Covid-19,” with 85% of businesses having or planning to have employees at their desks, The Wall Street Journal said at the time. One year later, though, Houston had 44.5% fewer average monthly office visits per working day than in 2019, according to foot traffic data from Placer.ai.
In other words, after getting off to a fast and robust start, Houston's return to office has remained static as other metros elsewhere in the U.S. improve their metrics.
Of the 11 major cities Placer.ai ranked, Houston came in seventh. Dallas had a slightly better result, placing fifth, with 43.9% fewer average monthly office visits than before the pandemic. Washington, D.C., had the smallest difference overall at 29.6%.
Data measuring foot traffic to offices in Downtown Houston — where the most office square footage is concentrated within the city, by far — also painted an encouraging picture in the year following the onset of the pandemic.
Downtown Houston had 741,328 office visitors in April 2019, which fell starkly to 176,426 in April 2020, data from Advan Research shows. By March 2021, the number of visitors spiked up to 300,473.
But more than two years later, the recovery hasn’t continued at the same rapid rate. There were 412,150 Downtown Houston office visitors in April 2023, according to Advan data provided to Bisnow. That’s a 44.4% decrease from 2019 numbers, aligning with Placer.ai’s data.
“The lasting impact of virtual work is very significant. For many professionals, especially those with a commute, the flexibility offered by hybrid work enabled fundamental life improvements,” Ethan Chernofsky, senior vice president of marketing for Placer.ai, told Bisnow in a statement.
“The plateauing of the office recovery is likely a combination of a variety of factors, but the sustained power and draw of hybrid work is arguably the most significant real estate outcome of the pandemic.”
Companies have recognized this trend and decided to rightsize, contributing to Houston office leasing activity falling by 28.7% in Q1 2023 compared to Q4 2022. Companies are being much more conservative about the space they take up, rather than leasing excess space for growth, Savills Texas Region President Mark O’Donnell previously told Bisnow.
“It used to be if you had 100 people, a company might say, ‘We’re going to have a 15% carry vacancy rate,’ which means they’d add 15%, 15 vacancies,” O’Donnell said. “Now if you have 100 people, you might lease 15% less, or even 40% less seats than that.”
Required office attendance also varies widely by industry, according to a CBRE survey. Only 26% of technology respondents require a return to the office more than 2.5 days a week compared to 48% of financial or professional services respondents, the survey states.
The wider office landscape is in a period of flux, Chernofsky said.
“There are also questions about whether a new economic environment could enable employers to drive more time at the office,” he said. “Currently, it's difficult to imagine a sharp increase in the return to office, though a more steady recovery that brings visits in closer proximity to pre-pandemic levels is certainly possible.”