As Americans Work From Home, Europeans and Asians Head Back to the Office
Return-to-office rates in Paris and Tokyo have climbed to over 75%, while U.S. often sits around half
Return-to-office rates in Paris and Tokyo have climbed to over 75%, while U.S. often sits around half
While U.S. offices are half empty three years into the Covid-19 pandemic, workplaces in Europe and Asia are bustling again.
Americans have embraced remote work and turned their backs on offices with greater regularity than their counterparts overseas. U.S. office occupancy stands at 40% to 60% of prepandemic levels, varying within that range by month and by city. That compares with a 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 globally.
Return to office was even more common in Asia, JLL said, where rates ranged from 80% to 110%—meaning that in some cities more people are in the office nowadays than before the pandemic.
Bigger homes, longer commutes and a tighter labor market help explain why Americans spend less time in the office than Europeans and Asians, workplace consultants say.
This divergence in return-to-office habits not only benefits overseas landlords more than their U.S. peers. It has a direct impact on how quickly metro areas rebound from the pandemic’s economic shock. Cities in Europe and Asia have bounced back relatively well. But empty office buildings and missing commuters have undermined recoveries in U.S. cities such as New York and San Francisco, where local restaurants, shops and other businesses that rely on office workers as their primary customers have suffered.
The number of unemployed in New York City increased by 83,500 between early 2020 and the third quarter of 2022 as the city’s unemployment rate surged far above the national average, according to a report by the New School Center for New York City Affairs. Many of those who lost their jobs worked in Manhattan in face-to-face industries such as retail, accommodation and food services.
While Manhattan has been particularly hard hit because of its dependence on office commuters, other U.S. central business districts are also struggling. Falling office values are threatening to hit city budgets that depend on property taxes. Lower transit ridership is weighing on the finances of public-transportation authorities. Adding more apartments can help revitalise central business districts, but that will take time.
Several overseas capitals experienced periods where more than 75% of their workers were back at their desks in 2021 and 2022, JLL said. That includes Tokyo, Seoul and Singapore in Asia. Paris regularly topped the list of workers back in the office in Europe. Stockholm wasn’t far behind with several months at a more-than-75% return-to-office rate.
No major U.S. city tracked by JLL achieved that high a return rate during the period.
“The U.S. has borne the brunt of this,” said Phil Ryan, director of city futures at JLL.
Living arrangements are one reason for the difference in work habits. Americans are more likely to live in spacious suburban houses. That makes it easier to set up a home office away from distractions. Hong Kong’s small apartments, for example, often house multiple generations, making working from home less appealing.
Suburban sprawl means many Americans have longer, more tedious commutes plagued by worsening traffic jams—another reason to stay home. While a number of European cities also have long average commutes, New York and Chicago are unmatched, according to mobility-services company Moovit Inc. Public-transit systems in Europe and Asia are often more reliable and less prone to delays, making it easier to get to work.
“We have high-density cities with effective public-transport systems,” said Caroline Pontifex, London-based director of workplace experience at consulting firm KKS Savills. “That makes a difference.”
Another explanation for America’s office exceptionalism is its labor market. At 3.4%, the U.S. unemployment rate is barely more than half the European Union’s unemployment rate of 6.1%. While Europe is also facing labor shortages, U.S. companies have been particularly hard hit, said JLL’s Mr. Ryan.
That has forced them to look farther afield for employees and hire remotely. Tech firms, which account for a particularly high share of employment in some big U.S. cities, have long been more tolerant of remote work.
Co-working companies are also reporting lower occupancy in some U.S. cities. WeWork Inc. said 72% of its desks in New York were leased as of the fourth quarter of 2022, compared with 80% in Paris, 81% in London and 82% in Singapore.
Workplace consultants say they expect the office-use gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world to persist.
It doesn’t help that U.S. offices were emptier long before the pandemic. A construction glut led to high vacancy rates, and even within leased offices companies tended to put fewer people on each floor than their European and Asian peers.
All that empty space is now creating a negative reinforcing cycle, said Phil Kirschner, an associate partner at business consulting company McKinsey & Co. Americans sitting in big, mostly empty offices find the experience depressing, making them more likely to stay at home in the first place. “It feels less energetic,” he said.
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Passwords aren’t enough to fend off hackers; these dongles are the best defense
Strong passwords are very important, but they’re not enough to protect you from cybercriminals.
Passwords can be leaked or guessed. The key to online security is protecting your account with a strong secondary measure, typically a single-use code. This is referred to as “two-factor authentication,” or 2FA, as the nerds know it.
I’ve written about all the different types of 2FA, such as getting those codes sent via text message or generated in an authenticator app. Having any kind of second factor is better than none at all, but physical security keys—little dongles that you plug into a USB port or tap on your phone during account logins—offer the highest level of protection.
Security keys have been around for over a decade, but now they’re in the spotlight: Apple recently introduced support for them as an optional, added protection for Apple ID accounts. Last month, Twitter removed text-message-based authentication as an option for nonpaying users, recommending instead an authenticator app or security key.
Some people are hesitant to use security keys because carrying around a physical object seems burdensome and they come with a $30-and-up added cost. Plus, what happens if they get lost?
I’ve used security keys since 2016 and think they are actually easier to manage than codes—especially with accounts that don’t require frequent logins. They’re not only convenient, but they can’t be copied or faked by hackers, so they’re safer, too.
Here’s how to weigh the benefits and common concerns of adding one or two of these to your keychain.
Many internet services support the use of security keys, and you can use the same security key to unlock accounts on many different services. I recommend two from industry leader Yubico:
Other options include Google’s Titan security keys ($30 and up). In addition to working with laptops and tablets with USB ports, these keys are compatible with smartphones that have NFC wireless. Most smartphones these days have that, since it’s the technology behind wireless payments such as Apple Pay.
Adam Marrè, chief information security officer at cybersecurity firm Arctic Wolf, recommends that your chosen key is certified by the FIDO Alliance, which governs the standards of these devices.
To add a key, look in the security settings of your major accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc.). During setup, it will prompt you to insert the key into your laptop or tablet’s port or hold the key close to your phone for wireless contact.
Apple requires you to add two security keys to your Apple ID account, in case you lose one.
Typically, when you log in, you just go to the app or website where you’ve set up a key, enter your username and password as usual, then once again insert the key into the device or hold it close. (Some keys have a metal tab you have to press to activate.) At that point, the service should let you right in.
Getting those two-factor login codes via text message is convenient, but if you are someone criminals are targeting, you could be the victim of SIM swapping. That’s where thieves convince carriers to port your number to a new phone in their possession, and they use it along with your stolen password to hack your accounts.
Even if they don’t go to all that trouble, criminals might try to trick you to hand them your codes, by calling you or spoofing a website you typically visit. At that point they can use the code for about 60 seconds to try to break in, said Ryan Noon, chief executive at security firm Material Security.
Security keys protect you in two ways: First, there’s no code to steal, and second, they use a security protocol to verify the website’s domain during login, so they won’t work on fake sites.
You can also add an authenticator app such as Authy to your most important accounts, to use only as a backup. But once you add these secure methods, you should consider removing the text-message code option.
In the rare case that someone snoops your passcode then steals your iPhone, beware: The perpetrator could still make Apple ID account changes using only the passcode, and even remove security keys from your account.
The most important rule of security keys is to buy an extra one (or two).
“Think of your security key as you would a house or car key,” said Derek Hanson, Yubico’s vice president of solutions architecture. “It’s always recommended that you have a spare.”
If you lose a security key, remove it from your accounts immediately. You should have already registered your spare or an authenticator app as a backup to use in the meantime.
Start with your most valuable accounts: Google, Apple, Microsoft, your password manager, your social–media accounts and your government accounts.
When it comes to financial institutions, many banks don’t offer security-key protection as an option, though most leading crypto exchanges do.
Security professionals and tech companies widely agree that passkeys are the future. They’re a new type of software option that combines the high security of a physical key with the convenience of biometrics such as your face or fingerprints. Passkeys are supported across the Android, iOS, Mac and Windows platforms, and some of your favourite sites already let you use them.
You can create a passkey on Facebook in security settings by following the app’s instructions under the security-key option. Dropbox has a similar passkey setup. Once you’re done, you’ll use your face or fingerprint as a second factor, instead of a code or key.
Eventually, physical security keys could be what we keep safe in strong boxes, as backups for our biometric-enabled passkeys. Even then, you’re probably going to want to have spares.
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