American workers aren't returning to the office like their international counterparts—here's why

Alexander Spatari | Moment | Getty Images

Workers around the world throughout Europe and Asia are going back to the office while U.S. employees are still working from home.

Even as people got vaccinated and Covid restrictions eased over the years, U.S. office occupancy remains stagnant around 40% to 60% of pre-pandemic levels, varying by month and by city, according to data from the commercial real estate firm JLL and reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, office attendance has returned to 70% to 90% in Europe and the Middle East, and around 80% to 110% in some Asian cities, meaning some workers are spending more time in the office now than pre-Covid.

In particular, several global cities steadily reached at least 75% office occupancy throughout 2021 and 2022, according to JLL data, including Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, Paris and Stockholm.

Average office attendance in 10 major U.S. metros only recently reached 50% for the first time since the pandemic hit, based on data from Kastle Systems. (Attendance varies widely by city, from 66% in Austin to 41% in San Jose, Calif. for the week ending Feb. 22.) 

Here are three big reasons why American workers aren't returning to the office while their global counterparts are:

More space and bigger homes

Americans are more likely than people throughout Europe and Asia to live in the suburbs and have bigger homes, making it more appealing to work remotely from home.

On the flip side, working from home is less ideal, and less common, in major cities where micro-apartments and intergenerational households are the norm, like in Hong Kong, for example.

Living in the suburbs means living farther away from city centers, which makes commuting more burdensome.

Lacking public transit

Americans who live in major U.S. cities still have their own commuting issues, though.

Even in big cities with public transit, like New York and San Francisco, people live farther away from city centers to save money but trade lower rent for longer commutes.

New York workers have the longest average commutes in the U.S. at 58 minutes one way, followed by Chicago (57 minutes) and Los Angeles (52 minutes).

Workers in Hong Kong, London and Singapore have some of the shortest average commute times, hovering around 45 minutes each way, according to data from Moovit, a  mobility-services company, provided to WSJ.

Public transit systems in Europe and Asia tend to be more accessible and reliable, workplace experts say.

A tight labor market that benefits workers

Finally, U.S. workers may have unique leverage in the continuously tight labor market that's favored workers during the Covid-economy rebound.

As of January, the average unemployment rate was 3.4% (about half of the European Union's jobless rate) and layoffs hovered around 1%, both near record lows.

Workers are using that leverage to resist return-to-office requirements.

Employees at some of the most powerful companies, including Apple, Disney and Amazon have forcefully pushed back on new RTO mandates, oftentimes stating that their contributions while working from home during the global pandemic helped company profits soar, and that doing away with remote work is at odds with improving workplace productivity, engagement and diversity efforts.

A good share of workers, 39%, say they would quit if their ability to work from home was taken away, according to a survey of 2,300 workers from Owl Labs and Global Workplace Analytics. Nearly half say they'd stop working as hard if the benefit was eliminated.

A 50% average office attendance rate could become the new norm for American workers, says Owl Labs CEO Frank Weishaupt, though he expects it to fluctuate throughout 2023 if layoff announcements scare people into going into the office, he says.

One certainty: Americans will never view the purpose of the office in the same way, says John Gates, JLL CEO of Americas Markets. "Business leaders must now focus on delivering human-centric spaces designed to support and improve employee's health and wellbeing, deliver peak experiences, and provide the latest in technology that fosters collaboration and creativity." 

Check out:

Workers report a 4-day workweek improves health, finances and relationships: It 'simply makes you happy'

More Americans are now working fully remote than 3 months ago, despite fewer WFH job openings

Bosses are increasing RTO requirements, but experts say it won't stick: 'We're at an inflection point'

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How this 26-year-old earns and spends $25,000 a year just outside NYC
How this 26-year-old earns and spends $25,000 a year just outside NYC