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Wide gap persists between office attendance and managers’ expectations as more companies push for fall return, finds CBRE survey

As many companies communicate firmer “return to the office” guidance this fall, a new CBRE survey of 176 companies shows that a wide gap between manager and employee sentiment persists when it comes to regular attendance in the office — leaving open the question of whether employees will actually return at a regular cadence that endures over time.

The survey, conducted for global commercial real estate services and investment firm CBRE in August by global corporate real estate (CRE) association CoreNet Global, gauged the sentiments of senior leaders at 176 companies in the U.S. and Canada on topics such as the progress of their return to the office, the amenities they have added or improved, and their plans for expanding or contracting their office portfolios.

In the first eight months of this year, many companies sought to ease employees back to their offices rather than mandate attendance. In September, several high-profile companies attracted headlines by enacting firmer attendance guidelines, and anecdotal accounts describe busier commutes in some markets.

Still, CBRE’s survey found even in August that 58% of companies reported employees were working in the office less often than executives expected. That’s in comparison to 39% who said attendance was ideal and 3% who said it was more than anticipated.

The main question, then, is What are managers doing about it? The survey found that 36% of companies have set corporate expectations for office attendance, 25% have allowed managers and teams to set attendance expectations and 19% have set no guidelines. A further 16% have allowed a combination of managers and employees together to set the guidelines, and 4% have left it to employees to decide for themselves.

Most companies aren’t enacting strict attendance mandates. That puts more importance on the methods and tools managers are using to encourage employees to come into the office — but the most popular so far are fairly passive. Most companies in the survey (62%) are simply sending memos to employees about policies and expectations for office attendance. Fewer (41%) are explaining to employees why a return to the office matters for their company. Fewer still (29%) are surveying employees about their needs and preferences. Among the least utilized methods (18%) is training for managers to guide and evaluate employees’ behaviors around office attendance.

To change organizational behavior, companies need to focus on creating new practices and implementing new tools to help drive a new normal. This is less about iterating on what was. It’s about working to change behaviors based on a new set of norms and principles.

 Julie Whelan, CBRE global head of Occupier Research

To that end, some companies (36%) are highlighting best practices and encouraging transparency about office attendance. The former can entail counseling managers to lead by example and advising teams to set certain days of the week to meet in the office. The latter can entail providing workplace apps that allow employees to see who will be in the office on which days so they can coordinate in-person meetings.

Attendance mandates have their place in addition to the many tools available to visit the office more frequently: in-office techs, better office design, amenities and events that promote collaboration and use of the office.

Manish Kashyap, CBRE global president of Advisory & Transaction Services

Amenities Companies Are Using To Encourage More Office Attendance

Practice Percentage of Companies Implementing It
Increasing collaborative areas and meeting rooms 63%
Improving workplace amenities 54%
Providing workplace apps and connectivity tools 48%
Adding and improving video conferencing tech 48%
Wellness-related building infrastructure 44%
Revisiting design standards 38%
Space-use tracking tech (occupancy sensors) 35%
Improving workplace services (concierge, etc.) 23%
Access to flex-office space by subscription 16%
Change management consulting 15%
Remote-work stipends 9%

The survey also gauged companies’ sentiment on expansion or contraction of their office portfolios. It found that, while the largest portion of companies anticipate their portfolios contracting over the next three years, a growing number foresee theirs expanding.

Specifically, 31% of companies said they anticipate adding to their office portfolio over the next three years, 19% foresee it remaining the same and 46% see it getting smaller. That’s a change in some cases from the past 20 months: Only 20% of companies said their office portfolios had expanded since January 2021, while 31% were unchanged and 44% had shrunk. In each timeframe, 4% of companies were unsure if change had taken place.

To read the full Post-Labor Day Uptick in Office Space Utilization May Not Satisfy Companies’ Expectations report, visit CBRE.