Are America and Europe returning to the office in the same way?

Photo: Cottonbro Studio
Apr 18 2024 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

It has been four years since Covid caused a seismic change in how (and where) people work. After nearly two years, many organizations insisted on people coming back to the office, leading to a rise in hybrid work and other compromise solutions. But are North America and Europe handling things the same? The evidence says no.

There are multiple factors at work that indicate a disparity between what the workplace looks like in various countries.

The return to office rate

In the US, just over 50% of employees have returned to the office full time, the rest continuing to work remote or partly-remote in new hybrid arrangements. European numbers (with the exception of London) are much higher. The average rate is slightly over 70%.

Major European centers such as Amsterdam, Paris, and Madrid have reached almost 90% primarily in-office numbers.

The labo(u)r market

One factor that influences whether people are returning to the office seems to be the unemployment rate. In the US, it currently sits at near-record lows (3.4% in most states.) In the EU, the unemployment rate is double that, at about 6.4%. This gives American workers a bit more leverage in negotiating with their employers. While the average US pay isnít going up, one of the perks being negotiated is schedule flexibility and hybrid work. The harder it is to find employees, the less employers seem to be willing to make returning to the office full-time a hill to die on.

Office space

In major European centers (again London is an outlier, which weíll explain later) there is a shortage of office space, and thatís been the case for years. The vacancy rate in commercial centers sits at 7.6% in 2024. IN many US cities, the vacancy rate has reached 20% and is climbing.

Many American companies renegotiated leases, downsized their footprint, or even changed addresses during the Covid downturn. There is a lot more confusion in the US Market about how much space is needed and how to sustain the expenses, questions which havenít been answered in the way they have in the EU.

It also is clear that remote work is just harder in some European countries. Houses and apartments are smaller and more crowded than in North America, with less space available for productive home working.

Why the difference - and whatís up with London?

Studies from commercial real estate analysts indicate there are several reasons for the difference, and it boils down to lifestyle choices.

  • Most Europeans have far shorter commutes than Americans, and are more comfortable with public transit, which in many ways reduces the stress and cost of commuting. Going back to the office doesnít take as long, costs less, and allows for more worklife balance.

  • Culturally, most American companies are more geographically dispersed and thus spend less time together anyway. Work (especially in France) is a very large part of the social environment and face time is considered more valuable.

Among European cities, London is the outlier. The hellacious commutes, expensive real estate and the number of international companies headquartered there (requiring distance and time zone accommodations anyway) makes the remote work situation much more like New York or Chicago than Berlin. Even pre-Brexit, the approach to remote work and office culture was less European than most other cities.

The growth of hybrid work (and the need for US and European countries to be on the same page occasionally) may change this imbalance over time. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see if the approach to work flexibility and remote work continues to evolve differently, in different parts of the world.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.