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Texas Offers A Sneak Peek Of What Return To The Office Might Look Like

With cases of the omicron variant on a downswing and mask mandates lifting, companies that delayed bringing workers back to the office for two long years are starting to bite the bullet. And nowhere has been more successful in bringing employees back to their desks than the Lone Star State, where major cities in the Texas Triangle — Austin, Dallas and Houston  lead the nation in office returnees, offering some lessons learned and a look into the crystal ball about how things might shake out for the rest of the country.

The short version: Things will likely level out at a 55%-65% return rate and only on some days, the claim the office must be a more appealing place than home is not hype, and friendly design and culture will be more than buzzwords going forward.


"Because Texas has been ahead of the game, we can look to the Texas numbers as an early indicator of where things will plateau out, because that's the biggest question that everyone's asking," said Julie Whelan, global head of occupier thought leadership at CBRE, noting bare majorities back in the office were likely.

Most major American metros now hover at around 40% of workers back in the office, according to the latest data available from keycard entry company Kastle Systems. That's a huge upswing from most of the pandemic when percentages were in the twenties and low thirties.

But it's in stark contrast to Texas norms. As of March 14, Houston recorded 52.4% of its workers back in the office. Dallas had seen at least 50.7% return to at least a hybrid schedule and Austin set the bar at 58.3%, the highest percentage in the nation. That's put the state far ahead of the curve in terms of what the post-pandemic workplace might look like. 

In the coming months, CRE companies expect other cities to track with Texas-level return to work figures of 50% to 60%. The new normal of hybrid work means experts don't believe employers will see 100% back in the office again soon, if ever.

For that reason, Kastle Systems Chairman Mark Ein thinks companies need to decide on their strategy going forward and put a stake in the ground on culture. If new variants rear up, he said, adjustments instead of mandates are needed; rather than shooing workers out of the office completely when a variant spikes, he said, a company might just require masks again. 

A 2022 global CBRE survey stated that most companies were planning on going back to the office this year, and Whelan told Bisnow that might be as soon as in the next month. CBRE's survey covered 207 companies total, with 69 in the U.S. Of the U.S. companies, almost half expected to return to the office this year, though most planned to incorporate hybrid work. About 26% were already in the office, while 12% had no time frame established and 10% had allowed employees to choose their return date. Six percent had some other plan in mind.

Many of the country's largest companies have already announced plans on bringing employees back to the office. Goldman Sachs and Netflix have opted for an office-first model, while many large technology companies have adopted some sort of hybrid model. Meta expects it will have many employees working remotely for up to a decade and Microsoft employees will be permitted to work hybrid permanently.

Among banks, Deutsche Bank employees can work remotely three days per week, while Citigroup and JPMorgan pivoted on their early skepticism on hybrid work over the past year and have embraced the concept going forward.

The pandemic only accelerated trends that were already on the way, according to Whelan, who added hybrid work was already on the rise pre-pandemic and isn't going away.

If employers want to attract workers to the office, she said, companies will be forced to lean into what employees are demanding from their workspaces: sustainable buildings, clean air and outdoor spaces. For many Class-A office buildings, that isn't a tall order, and those spaces are being snatched up as a result.

More than 40% of Americans in major metros are back in the office, but far more are eating in restaurants and attending crowded events. If Texas is a guide, that could soon change.

But those employers who may not have the money for a Class-A office space will have to choose a less desirable area or, for a small company, think about flex space or a coworking space, according to David Smith, global head of occupier insights at Cushman & Wakefield. Either way, he said, the space will affect employees.

"You're going to communicate culture whether you choose to or not," Smith said, quoting a consultant colleague. "Your space is going to say something and it's going to make people feel something, whether you're being intentional about what that is. It can be neutral, or it can be negative, or it can be positive."

Landlords facing big price tags for amenities for their buildings aren't dragging their feet on the upfront costs, said Brooke Armstrong, president of advisory services in Dallas at CBRE.

"I have not met a landlord that doesn't understand that [amenities] are a requirement at this point. I'm sure they're out there, but it seems to be broadly embraced that that's the way of the future," she said. "You're either going to keep up with the times, or you're going to have a very difficult time leasing your space." 

But for Class-B buildings and under, landlords will have to either revamp the buildings to amenitize the space, or fall behind to those employers willing to pay for a space with a restaurant and fitness center.

As the scale of power tips more in workers' favor amid the Great Resignation, employers, especially those ahead of the game in Texas, are realizing they will have to get more feedback from employees on how they want to work.

Whelan said she's seen success with employers asking for employee feedback from surveys and focus groups to get a better idea of what employees and need to come into the office at all. Companies are soliciting opinions on art in the office, design colors, what food and beverage might be offered, and more.

"The pandemic changed the way everybody thought about work," said Sheila Botting, Avison Young's principal and president of professional services in the Americas, adding cube farms are dead. "The whole world recognized that [people don't always work at their desk] and said, 'How are we going to work differently and embrace the new ways of working?'" 

National CRE experts cited no single, ironclad reason why Texas cities are so far ahead on bringing workers back to the office, but several factors were consistently brought up. Texas has marketed itself on its business-friendly policies and its lack of a strict culture around mask-wearing.

"I think that attitude and working together and collaborating like we have in Texas  [led to] tremendous growth and opportunity across the state," said Grant Hayes, Texas and Denver regional lead of innovation and insight at Avant, an intelligence platform from Avison Young.

The pandemic also managed to turn some of Texas' infrastructure flaws into temporary strengths. Lack of robust public transit in Texas is usually considered a downside, but it worked out in office landlords' favor during the worst of the pandemic. Because far fewer Texans rely on public transit to commute, there was less skittishness about taking a train to work or risking exposure to Covid-19, according to several experts who spoke to Bisnow.

For Armstrong, the strong real estate company presence in Dallas and elsewhere in Texas comes into play, too. Armstrong suggested Texas companies may have been spurred to jumpstart the return to office by the state's heavy CRE presence. 

"I wonder if one factor might be that Texas and Dallas, we're a real estate town," Armstrong said. "We might be a little more forward-thinking on trends like that. And quicker to adopt them."