Why the World is Back at the Office But the US Is Not

New figures ignite the debate on whether workers are more productive at the office or at home.

When it comes to working at the office, are Americans leading the way? Or are they lagging behind much of the world?

That’s what workplace experts are wondering after seeing the latest data on office-occupancy numbers around the globe. Almost three years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, US office occupancy stands at 40% to 60% of pre-pandemic levels, varying within that range by month and by city. That’s far lower than the 70%-to-90% rate in Europe and the Middle East, according to JLL, a property-services firm that manages 4.6 billion square feet of real estate internationally.

For some, it’s a sign that many US workers have effectively meshed their professional and personal lives, but many leaders believe that workers are far less productive working remotely. “It’s easy to think that the US is falling behind, but maybe the US is actually leading the way,” David Ellis, Korn Ferry’s vice president for global TA transformation. 

The JLL data comes on the heels of similar statistics from Kastle Systems, which tracks weekday security swipes into buildings. In late January, average office use crossed the 50% threshold in 10 major US cities for the first time since March 2020. Contrast that with places such as Tokyo, Singapore, and Stockholm, which have had office occupancy rates of 75% since at least last year. 

Experts say there are multiple reasons for the gap. For one thing, Americans tend to have larger homes than people in other parts of the world, making it easier to dedicate working space in them. “In other places, if you’re in cramped living conditions, you want to go to the office,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global strategist on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

At the same time, many Americans have longer commute times—especially driving times—than their global peers. A shorter commute often equals more money in a US worker’s pocket. On average, a US worker who used to commute to the office and is now working at home is saving between $3,000 and $15,000, depending on whether they formerly used public transportation or a car.

The robust US job market is also playing a factor. The US unemployment rate of 3.4% is nearly half that of the EU’s 6.1% rate. Individual workers continue to have a lot of leverage over employers, experts say. If a worker doesn’t want to be at the office, they can just quit and likely find a new role quickly. All of this has translated into a reluctance in some industries to insist that workers return to offices, says Tanya van Biesen, managing partner for Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice in Canada. 

This development worries some leaders. Recently, US productivity has declined, and a recent study at Stanford found that teams working in person produce about 15 percent more ideas. Some organizations experiencing downturns in business have told workers to return as a way to spur productivity and business.

The major question is whether office occupancy in the US will ultimately look more like it does in the rest of the world, or the reverse. There’s a third possibility too: perhaps the situation in the US will permanently be different than it is elsewhere. 


For more information, contact Korn Ferry’s Workforce Transformation practice.