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Remote work in Wisconsin declines, but office vacancies remain high

Report: Wisconsin saw an 11 percent decline in people working remotely from 2021-22

A woman sits at a table in front of a laptop.
Laura Isaacson works remotely for a San Francisco-based company on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, from her home in Mount Horeb, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Remote work has declined in Wisconsin after spiking during the COVID-19 pandemic, but office vacancies remain elevated in the state’s largest city and its suburbs.

From 2021 to 2022, the state saw an 11 percent decrease in the number of people working remotely, from 437,295 to 387,700, according to a recent study from LLC.org.

Both Madison and Milwaukee have seen about a 20 percent decline in the number of people working from home, according to the report. Madison’s remote workforce declined by 22 percent from 40,253 to 31,385 people. Milwaukee’s has declined by 19 percent from 40,265 to 32,627.

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Despite the decrease, remote work nationally remains higher than it was before the pandemic. In September 2023, the average U.S. worker reported spending 3.8 days each month doing their job remotely, down from 5.8 days in 2020 but up from 2.4 days in 2019, according to Gallup.

As of 2023, Forbes reported that 12.7 percent of full-time employees worked from home, while 28.2 percent worked a hybrid model. 

Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon said the decline in remote workers noted in the LLC.org report isn’t surprising, but he doesn’t expect remote work to return to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon.

“It will continue to be higher than it was pre-pandemic but never be what it was during the pandemic,” Brandon said. “You’re going to continue to see businesses and governments sort out what works and what doesn’t work.”

While remote work has decreased in Wisconsin, it hasn’t necessarily led to offices brimming with activity in the greater Milwaukee area.

From the final three months of 2021 to the same period in 2022, office vacancies in southeast Wisconsin increased slightly from 15.3 percent to 15.8 percent, according to reports from the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin. By the end of 2023, office vacancies in southeast Wisconsin increased to 17.7 percent

Tracy Johnson, president and CEO for the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin, said generally smaller offices are faring better in the market than larger office spaces.

“A lot of it has to do with the fact that people are just rethinking the way that they use their space,” she said. “You’ve got the hybrid model that, I think, is very pervasive.”

While office vacancies haven’t recovered, Brandon said offices are important to local economies because their workers help support surrounding businesses.

“Offices have amenities around them, (and) those amenities are struggling,” he said. “It’s not uncommon to see places that used to be open for lunch seven days a week (that) are not open for lunch every day of the week anymore, if they’re open for lunch at all.”

Johnson and Brandon said offices also provide an important social space for workers to build a sense of camaraderie. In a virtual work environment, they said it’s harder for coworkers to forge friendships, creating a feeling of isolation.

“We may not have water coolers per se anymore in offices, but the concept of the water cooler is real,” Brandon said.

A 2023 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that U.S. workers who have close work friends are more likely to say they’re satisfied with their job than those without close friends at work. And 80 percent of employees with close friends at work say they feel a strong sense of belonging to their organization.

“It’s good for their mental health, I think people feel very isolated,” Johnson said. “When you feel disconnected, I think that contributes to your ability to create trust, and also create innovation.”