DC-area companies push back return to the office plans

Empty office
A new Greater Washington Partnership survey shows COVID-19 vaccine availability and how comfortable employees feel about returning to the office are driving decisions to push back a return to D.C.-area offices. (Getty)

D.C.-area employees working from home may be working from home for several more months, with many D.C.-area employers pushing back their return to the office plans, reflecting the changing course of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new survey by the Greater Washington Partnership.

COVID-19 vaccine availability, and how comfortable employees feel about returning to the office are driving decisions, the Greater Washington Partnership said.

Its survey, conducted in November and December, found 29% of respondents expect their workforce to be physically back at their worksites by March, down from 49% who said so in a similar survey conducted last August.

Of those surveyed, 63% expect their workforces to be back between July and September. By fall, between October and December, 76% expect their employees will be back on site.

Smaller organizations area more likely to have a larger share of their workforce back at the worksite currently or soon. The Greater Washington Partnership said organizations with fewer than 25 employees expected one-third of their workforce to be on-site this winter.

Those businesses with more than 1,000 employees expect 15% of their workforce on-site on average.

The coronavirus pandemic is also affecting the number of people visiting worksites or using services. Organizations who typically see on-site visitors, such as students, clients, customers or patients, on average expect only about one-third as many on-site visitors in January 2021 as before the pandemic.

Availability of a COVID-19 vaccine tops the list for biggest drivers for decisions regarding when to bring employees back to worksites; 60% in the survey said so. Another 51% said employee sentiment and personal health concerns are another driver in decision making.

A third of the D.C.-area workforce faces coronavirus-related personal challenges that complicate their return to the worksite, including lack of child care, immunocompromised or elderly family members and lack of access to safe transportation, the Greater Washington Partnership’s report said.

Despite expectations for more flexible work schedules, and more employees continuing to work remotely, even after the pandemic passes, 75% of D.C.-area organizations surveyed said they are not planning to make changes to the size of their current workplace real estate, with 13% saying they will look to reduce their space.

Other findings include:

  • Maintaining organizational culture and employee mental health are the most concerting ways the pandemic has disrupted workplaces.
  • Rapid testing and improved ventilation and sensors that can measure the coronavirus would be top solutions to make worksites for resilient.
  • Fifty-six percent of organizations expect some teleworking, or one or two days a week, after the coronavirus pandemic, and 13% expect teleworking most of the time.

“Since the release of our first Capital COVID-19 Snapshot, our region has continued to struggle along with the rest of the country to get a clear handle on what to expect through 2021. This refreshed regional analysis will help employers make informed decisions that will ensure a safe, inclusive and timely return to work for all their employees,” said J.B. Holston, CEO of the Greater Washington Partnership.

The Greater Washington Partnership surveyed 172 D.C.-area employers representing 875 worksites that collectively employ 139,000 people across all industry types and sizes between Nov. 11, 2020 and Dec. 11, 2020.

Read the full Capital COVID-19 Snapshot Planning for the Return to Worksites.

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Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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