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Fewer than 1 in 4 workers has gone back to the office as businesses plot a wider reopening

Roger Vincent, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

People had started showing up to the office again in greater numbers, but fled for home as the recent coronavirus surge shook the region, fresh data show.

Still, employers and landlords are betting that workers will want to return as vaccinations increase and virus fears recede, even though demand to rent space in office buildings continues to shrink.

"By the stats, it's not that encouraging," said broker Todd Doney of real estate services company CBRE. "We certainly have work ahead of us to get through this. ... But when the governor announced no more COVID restrictions on June 15, that's light at the end of the tunnel for me."

An average of 24% of employees in 10 major U.S. cities were back to the office as of April 7, down nearly a full percentage point from the week before, according to Kastle Systems, which provides keycard entry systems used by many companies and tracks patterns of workers' card swipes.

In Los Angeles, the average at Kastle's 148 buildings was 22.1% and, like the national average, took a significant dip during the winter COVID surge, but had been rising again before the latest virus resurgence. Although beneath the U.S. average, L.A.'s offices were more full than five other cities tracked by Kastle, including San Jose at 16.7% and San Francisco at 13.4%.

As employees were trickling back to some offices, other workplaces were turning off the lights and turning over the keys.

 

Overall non-rented office space in Los Angeles County reached 17.2% in the first quarter, the highest vacancy level since early 2012, CBRE reported. That reflected a net loss of 1.6 million square feet of leased space, nearly matching the worst quarterly loss during the Great Recession.

Signings of office leases have been falling for about a year as companies sent employees home to work or laid them off in the face of a sharp economic downturn spurred by the virus. Many tenants reduced their office footprints as their leases rolled over, while others put their unused space on the market for sublease.

Tenants looking to get some money for offices they were not using had 7.3 million feet available for sublease in the first quarter, about 15% of the total space available for rent — high by historic standards.

The number of leases being signed remained low, as tenants avoided long-term decisions in favor of short-term renewals when their leases expired.

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