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Houston Workers Returning to Offices at Nationally High Rates

Nearly three years after the pandemic sent many employees of Greater Houston businesses home to work remotely, workers are returning to their offices at one of the highest rates in the country, according to recent data.

(TNS) — Nearly three years after the pandemic sent many employees of Greater Houston businesses home to work remotely, workers are returning to their offices at one of the highest rates in the country, according to data tracked by Kastle Systems, a security technology firm.

Behind only Austin and ahead of metro areas including Dallas, Chicago and New York, Houston-area workplaces saw office occupancy rates increase to nearly 60 percent in December 2022, up from around 25 percent in April 2020.

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Experts aren't surprised by the Kastle research, which shows office occupancy trends rising in all 10 metro markets the firm is tracking. The company's "Back to Work Barometer" is based on anonymous keycard data from clients' office buildings.

"The communication is better (in an office)," said Patrick Jankowski, chief economist for the Greater Houston Partnership, a business advocacy group that serves some 900 companies in the 12 Houston-area counties. "There are a lot of collaborative and social benefits. No one likes the commute, and everyone would rather be in their sweatpants and gym shorts, but that's the trade-off."

Morning coffees, afternoon lunches

Beyond the data, the evidence of workers returning to offices in droves is evident downtown. After being devastated by the pandemic, the network of underground tunnels connecting downtown business centers is again bustling with workers looking for their morning coffees and afternoon lunches.

Even Jankowski has noticed the uptick. His favorite burger joint in the downtown tunnels has been especially busy lately, and he now has to wait until after the lunch rush to get one.

It's an example of how return-to-office "has all sorts of secondary and spillover effects for companies that supply services to the worker and ... the employer," he said.

Stanley Hooper, who works in business development for an oil and gas company downtown, said he worked remotely in the early days of the pandemic but was called back into the office within weeks.

He enjoyed working from home and laments that he can't work a more hybrid schedule, but being in the office has been socially beneficial for him, he said. "Being around people is something most people need," Hooper said.

He also cited the immediacy and ease of communicating with coworkers when you can get up and talk to them in person instead of waiting for a response online as a benefit of being back in the office.

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But despite the economic benefits of returning to the office, a Gallup poll published last August shows that an increasing number of on-site U.S. workers have a preference for remote-work flexibility

In the Houston area, data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey shows that a significant number of workers are still working from home — even if it's a smaller share than in other large metropolitan areas. Fewer than 9 percent of metro Houston workers are remote, the smallest share of any large U.S. metro region, according to the survey.

Remote workers holding on

For 24-year-old Bryan Gudiel, a recent University of Houston graduate who works from home full time as an H-E-B retail media planner, remote work has been the norm for the entirety of his young career.

"I'm able to have a better routine and go outside and get some fresh air," he said. "I'm sure you can do that stuff (working in an office), but when you work from home you have the freedom to take more time for yourself and not be constrained to an office environment."

Because the pandemic began while he was still in college, all of his internships and work experiences have been from his desk at home in the Alief area. Under the right conditions, he could see himself someday splitting time between home and an office, he said, but a full-time in-person gig wouldn't be as enticing.

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Jan Parayno, a former coworker of Gudiel's who works remotely from Katy for the Maryland-based marketing company Merkle, has a more hard-line stance on working full time in an office.

"The pandemic has proven that I can do everything that is required from home," she said. "I don't see the point of working in an office. You're more subject to being micromanaged."

Another advantage is the flexibility of being able to take breaks in a comfortable environment and do things such as walking her dog in her free time, she said.

Gudiel agrees.

Not having to commute to and from an office every day makes life easier for him. Sure, he doesn't see or know his coworkers as well as someone who works in person might, but he can do mundane yet meaningful tasks, such as picking his little brother up from school or taking walks around his neighborhood during breaks.

"This is how work and corporate environments should be," Gudiel said. "The freedom and time that you have with your family are pretty valuable."

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