Return-to-office occupancy rates are bound to hit a ceiling—2023 could be the year

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The return-to-office reckoning isn’t over just yet.

Anyone would be forgiven for believing the week after Thanksgiving would be a slow period in workplaces as most employees are attempting to wind things down during the even slower march to the new year. So it’s surprising, upon first glance, to see that office occupancy rates hit 49% the week of Dec. 5, according to Kastle Systems. That was among the highest it’s been since the pandemic sent the majority of Americans home in March 2020.

And experts say that number is expected to continue ticking upward—albeit slowly—as we enter 2023.

“It goes in fits and starts,” says Kastle Systems Chairman Mark Ein. “[Office occupancy] has been on a steady rise since the beginning of [2022]. We’ve actually been talking about and predicting this rise for a while.”

Kastle Systems has become something of a barometer for who’s gaining ground in the employee-executive tug of war over returning to offices. The security company, which tracks patterns in employee office key-card entries predicted at the onset of 2022 that office occupancy rates would see a slight steady increase as the year progressed. And it has played out pretty much that way.

After dropping to a low of 15% in April 2020, office occupancy began steadily increasing in 2021 until the U.S. was hit by the Omicron wave. The first week of January 2022, rates hit 28%. Despite a lot of employee pushback and media coverage, things have been mostly on the upward trajectory since then.

The summer saw rates climb to the 43-44% range, where they hovered until the fall, hitting a high of 47% in September.

Ein tells Fortune he believes those rates are going to consistently continue to rise. The 49% occupancy rate that seemed like an outlier for it being just after Thanksgiving was, more than anything, an example of where the return-to-office debate is going in the new year.

In fact, when you break it down by day, the first full week in December saw occupancy rates reach nearly 57% on Tuesday—the most popular day for going to the office—56% on Wednesday, and 51% on Thursday. Monday and Friday are understandably less popular, with a more than 23% difference in occupancy between the highest percentage day and the lowest.

One reason for the increase in office occupancy could be that many workers have projects to wrap up before the end of the year and preparation to do heading into 2023. That work, Ein argues, is more easily done in the office.

“It’s actually a pretty intense and critical time,” he says.

Still, Ein expects office occupancy rates to level off somewhere around 60%.

One of the things we’ve learned for sure in the past year is that work as we knew it before the pandemic isn’t likely to return. Office workers have already settled into a new rhythm—at home.

“The step where we are now is people are coming back [to the office], but they’re just concentrating that time on different days,” Ein says.

That will continue, he says: More people will trek to offices Tuesday through Thursday, fewer on Mondays and Fridays, which is likely to keep the occupancy rate averages in or around 60%.

Of course that’s assuming nothing dramatically impacts RTO or the labor market. If we’ve learned nothing in the past three years, it’s that we should never make assumptions.

“The same pressures that have led to the rise in office occupancy are going to exist in 2023… but there will be a natural ceiling to it,” Ein says. “We’re never really going to get to 100%.”

On the flip side, he also doesn’t think we’ll see a significant decrease in office occupancy, unless there’s an emergence of another, highly transmissible COVID-19 variant. Beyond that, he says, business leaders look at all other aspects of life where people gather—sporting events, conferences, movie theaters, etc.—and they’ve all virtually returned to normal. Of course the fact that the office has lagged behind that trend, could also signal the fact that the way we work has simply forever changed.

Still, the steady march of time will apparently inevitably lead back to the office—about 60% of the time.

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