A pedestrian talks on the phone in Beijing, China, on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021.
In Asia, some countries are taking tiny steps to re-open, but China is still committed to its goal of Covid Zero, with strict travel restrictions and quarantines for pockets of infection. Photographer: Andrea Verdelli/Bloomberg

Omicron Suddenly Upends the World’s Return to the Office

Omicron Suddenly Upends the World’s Return to the Office

The uncertain is threatening what looked unstoppable only a few weeks ago.

The emergence of the omicron variant, just as the coronavirus seemed to be receding into the rear-view mirror, has put much of the global return to the office on hold.

It’s not known how dangerous the new variant is, and it’s not likely to be for weeks yet. In the meantime, governments and employers are taking few chances. In London, Boris Johnson’s government has been forced to advise people to work from home once again. San Francisco’s tech firms are postponing their planned return to the office, or are doing away with their deadlines entirely. In Asia, some countries are taking tiny steps to re-open, but China is still embroiled in a game of whack-a-mole to find infections.

Out of Office

Workplace activity remains below pre-pandemic levels

Note: Community Mobility Reports show daily relative change using aggregated, anonymized sets of data from user location history. Data has been smoothed to weekday average. Frankfurt is represented as part of the region of Hesse, being the largest city with 12% of the population. Data as of Dec. 17, and doesn’t include Beijing.
Source: Google

With another wave of the virus looming, the latest data present a reminder that the road back to the office will be anything other than short or direct. And as the pandemic becomes endemic, the hybrid and temporary arrangements that people have become used to are starting to take on an increasing air of permanence.


Empty tables outside a restaurant in London.
Even before the government brought in tougher measures, Londoners were becoming more cautious about venturing out. The number of visits to restaurants had already dropped to its lowest level in six months. Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

At an event one November afternoon to mark the opening of their new headquarters in London’s County Hall–a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament–dealmakers from venture capital firm Sustainable Ventures were shaking hands as they greeted dozens of guests indoors. It was one of many signs that working life in the capital was returning to normal.

Then came Omicron, and the call from the politicians over the River Thames to work from home. In the space of less than two weeks, the seemingly unstoppable return to the office was put on pause as scientists raced to work out how dangerous the new variant may be.

Firms from JPMorgan Chase & Co. to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. are asking staff to work from home, while Deutsche Bank AG has told employees holiday parties are off limits. The country may not be in a full lockdown, and a sizable minority of workers are still coming back to their desks, but months of momentum have been lost.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After Boris Johnson’s “Freedom Day” in July, Londoners had been returning to their desks in droves, with commuters cramming back into underground trains. Almost 70 million trips were completed between Sept. 18 and Oct. 16, three times as many as in March, according to Transport for London.

Workplace activity in the City had rebounded to roughly 20% below its pre-pandemic level as of Nov. 17, according to mobility data compiled by Google, which tracks the location of its users. That’s the closest the financial district has been to its typical hustle and bustle since before the first lockdown in March 2020.

Even before the government brought in tougher measures–asking the public to work from home and requiring them to wear face coverings in most indoor public spaces–there were growing signs that people were becoming more cautious about venturing out. The number of visits to restaurants had already dropped to its lowest level in six months. Since restrictions were imposed, demand for sandwich lunches has slipped, according the Bloomberg Pret Index, and the hospitality industry is warning of more damage to come.

It isn’t yet clear how omicron will affect the office market, which had been enjoying a resurgence. Businesses committed to leasing 819,000 square feet of new space from British Land Co. in the six months through September, making it the property developer’s busiest period in London for at least a decade.

For now, workers are in the unusual position of being told by the government, as a Daily Telegraph headline put it, don’t go to work, but do go to parties. With many reluctant to infect elderly or vulnerable relatives, most people are happy to leave the decision about returning to the office until after the festive period.

New York City

Pedestrians and traffic outside the Saks Fifth Avenue store.
Before the arrival of omicron, New York headed toward the holiday season with more workers coming back to the office and tourists returning for the city’s famed Christmas attractions. Photographer: Christopher Occhicone/Bloomberg

New York headed toward the holiday season with crowds of workers and tourists back in Manhattan, with prospects for an even greater return to normalcy in the new year. Now, a surge of Covid cases has employers and city leaders rushing to adopt new policies to contain a rapidly expanding outbreak.

Finance companies including Citigroup Inc., Blackstone Inc. and Jefferies Financial Group Inc. have said staff can work from home through the holidays. Broadway shows and restaurants are shutting down because of infections among workers, while testing sites have lines snaking around the block.

The city’s health commissioner warned last week that Covid data show an “alarming trend.”  Mayor Bill de Blasio has ordered that private employers mandate vaccines starting Dec. 27, a first for a major U.S. city. New York also is strengthening the rules for indoor dining, entertainment and fitness to permit access only for those 12 and older who are fully vaccinated.

The latest virus wave is upending what had been a steady march back to the city’s towers. About 36% of the region’s office workers were back at their desks in the week ended Dec. 8, up from 21% at the start of September, according to security firm Kastle Systems.

Subway usage had climbed to new heights at some of the busiest stations in the city. Times Square, a hub for commuters and tourists alike, reached over half of its pre-Covid traveler volume in early December, as did Herald Square and the Lexington Ave. 53rd Street station.

Still, the depressed ridership is squeezing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s finances, which said it will need to borrow $1.4 billion and find new revenue sources to balance its budget in 2025.

More New Yorkers had been expected to return to offices early in the new year. A November survey by the Partnership for New York City found that about 49% of office workers are expected to be back on an average weekday by Jan. 30, with about 57% in the office at least three days a week and 21% staying remote. But that poll was taken before omicron emerged.

Employers are carefully monitoring Covid cases to see how those expectations may change, said Kathy Wylde, the partnership’s chief executive officer.

“I don’t think anybody’s reversing policies, but they’re not going forward until we see what happens in early January,” she said.


Commuters walking through a train station in Beijing.
Beijing’s workers have been commuting to their offices full-time—as they have been since March 2020. Photographer: Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

It looked like China–with the Winter Olympics less than two months away–might be returning to work-from-home mode, after recording the widest outbreak since the virus first emerged in Wuhan. But Beijing’s office workers are at their desks full-time–as they have been since March 2020. And China is still committed to its goal of Covid Zero, or elimination, with strict travel restrictions and quarantines.

Containing the spread in China means shutting down pockets of infection. When a worker gets Covid, staff at the infected person’s company–and even close contacts of the company–are told to work from home immediately to cut off any possible transmission.

When three employees of China National Petroleum Corp. and four of their family members recently tested positive for the virus, the state-owned company asked all who had left the office building to self-quarantine while working from home for seven days. Those who were still in the building were asked to remain working in the office but to receive Covid tests for three consecutive days. All other visitors to the building were also notified to quarantine at home.

The outbreak also spurred travel restrictions that have stopped some residents from returning to home or work in Beijing, or frightened others from taking business trips to the city. Flights to Beijing from some provincial capitals have been cut to one per day, while inbound trains to Beijing from over 100 stations in middle or high risk regions were halted.

Even with the best of intentions, simple snafus can cause mass disruption. An electronic system banned people from booking train or plane tickets when the capital was considered a location where Covid was spreading, confusing many who were stuck in the city or planning business trips. Local authorities then apologized for the blip, but later asked Beijing residents traveling or overlapping elsewhere with confirmed Covid cases to delay their return.

San Francisco

Daytime view of six windows of a glass-and-steel office building with individual workers framed in the two separate rooms.
The omicron-related delays to return-to-office are another blow for a city that already has been among the slowest in the U.S. to have workers come back. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

“Tepid,” “very slow” and “flat” were among the words used by San Francisco’s controller’s office to describe data trends in the city’s pandemic recovery—and that was even before the omicron variant was detected.

Now, several of the region’s large tech companies are again postponing return-to-office dates. Google, Apple Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc., previously expecting to call most workers back early in the new year, have done away with their deadlines and haven’t set new ones. Lyft Inc. is now letting staff work remotely for all of 2022, a decision it said was tied to both omicron and a desire to provide employees with more flexibility.

The delays are another blow for a city that already has been among the slowest in the U.S. to have office workers come back. The tech industry, the main driver of the Bay Area economy, has been particularly willing to embrace remote work and flexibility, especially as employers compete for staff in highly coveted fields like engineering.

Landlords are taking notice. Office giant Boston Properties Inc. has seen a lower share of people back at its San Francisco properties than at its buildings in other major U.S. cities, CEO Owen Thomas said in a Bloomberg TV interview this month. For apartment owner Equity Residential, the city is the only U.S. market that hasn’t had a full recovery to pre-pandemic rents.

The Bay Area continues to lag behind the rest of the country on Kastle Systems security swipes at buildings, which were about 29% of the pre-pandemic average as of Dec. 8. Time spent outside the home was about 15% below normal, trailing the broader recovery in California, according to the report from the controller’s office.

There are signs of improvement. Ridership into downtown San Francisco on commuter rail lines is creeping higher, at 22% of normal as of October. Five pedestrian counters scattered in the city’s financial district by the Downtown San Francisco Community Benefit District recorded a 20% increase in foot traffic since September.

Robbie Silver, the community benefit district’s executive director, said the organization is making an effort to bring more arts, culture and public space to the area, with the assumption that 10% to 20% of its usual commuters won’t ever return. “We can’t wait around until, you know, people just start magically coming back,” he said.


A residential district in Frankfurt with the skyline of the business district in the background.
In November, the German government reinstated a policy that requires companies to allow employees to work from home, unless there are operational reasons not to do so. Photographer: Michael Probst/AP Photo

The skyscrapers in Frankfurt are emptying again after months in which many firms had encouraged employees to return to the office.

A jump in the number of Covid cases, together with a change in government guidance, has prompted employers to change tack. The spread of the omicron variant is likely to further increase public pressure to work from home.

The seven-day incidence rate in Frankfurt has been rising dramatically since the fall, hitting more than 300 per 100,000 people in early December. Although the vaccination campaign is making progress, only about 68% of residents in Hesse–the regional state in which Frankfurt is located–have been fully vaccinated as of December 10.

In November, the German government reinstated a policy from earlier in the pandemic that requires companies to allow employees to work from home, unless there are operational reasons not to do so. Only employees who are vaccinated, tested or have recovered are allowed to access the office. Anyone who breaks rules can be fined.

At Deutsche Bank, only those who have what the firm calls compelling reasons are now allowed to work in the office. DekaBank, which is owned by the country’s savings bank, has similar guidelines and is recommending that even vaccinated people perform a rapid test before coming to the office. DZ Bank, a lender with assets of about $700 billion, says that just a quarter of its employees have been working in the office lately with the ratio likely to decrease even further.

Deutsche Bahn, the railway company which serves Frankfurt and surrounding cities, estimates local train ridership was just 65% of its pre-pandemic level in November. Weekday workplace mobility data from Google for Hesse is also down 17% from its normal level.


People cross the Jubilee Bridge in the Marina Bay area of Singapore with the central business district skyline in the background.
Singapore will finally loosen its work-from-home policy in January, when up to 50% of fully vaccinated workers will be allowed to return to the office. Photographer: Joseph Nair/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Despite having one of the world’s highest vaccination rates–87%–Singapore is taking a cautious approach toward reopening.

The country will finally loosen its work-from-home policy in January, when up to 50% of fully vaccinated workers will be allowed to return to the office. It’s one of several small steps that the Southeast Asian nation has recently taken to gradually ease its strict curbs. Now up to five people from different households can dine indoors together, and vaccinated travelers have more freedom to travel. But the government is considering barring unvaccinated workers from the office, even if they test negative.

Singapore has detected 24 confirmed omicron cases as of Dec. 16 and is bracing for a potential wave. To counter the threat, it’s expanding vaccinations for children aged 5 to 11, starting as early as this month.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic is not ending soon,” Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the country’s virus task force, said at a briefing on Dec. 11. “In some ways this is perhaps the calm before the next storm. So we do have to brace ourselves for the omicron wave.”

The prolonged work-from-home mandate has left many office buildings even emptier than they were at the start of the year.

Singapore’s biggest real estate investment trust, CapitaLand Integrated Commercial Trust, reported that 15.7% of workers in its portfolio returned to the workplace as of Oct. 15. That’s lower than the 20.6% figure as of July 16 and 51.3% in the first quarter.

The longer office staff work-from-home, the more the practice will be ingrained into their psyche, according to Alan Cheong, executive director of research at Savills Plc. The return to pre-pandemic working habits may prove tricky.