The world of work is changing. In 2020, COVID-19 swept the globe, disrupting the traditional office work environment and raising the question: Do we really need to work from the office in the digital age?

While some companies are still reeling from an enforced transition to remote work and rushing to get employees back to the office, others have decided that the grass is greener in the virtual work environment.

However, while the rise of remote work is undeniable, the hybrid work model has captured the attention of industry leaders and tech titans. Letting employees work from home while touching base at the office several days a week can benefit all.

Tech giants such as Apple and Amazon have led the charge into unchartered territory, trialing four-day work weeks in the wake of COVID-19. It remains to be seen how effective this work model will prove to be, but it likely represents a seismic shift in the work culture of the future.

With that in mind, office work will remain integral to many businesses around the world. But which countries, cities, and US states have been the fastest to return to the office?

Which global cities have returned to work the fastest?

The five capital cities around the world that have shown the greatest baseline recovery and bounced back to office-based working are as follows:



Baseline recovery (%)
















What are the top five countries that have returned to work the fastest?

Here are the top five countries that have shown the greatest baseline recovery:


Baseline recovery (%)











Why have some countries returned to work faster than others?

The short answer is that many companies uphold their views that working in the office leads to higher productivity levels, more effective collaboration, and enhanced communication. Many businesses were forced to confront the realities of remote work due to COVID-enforced lockdowns and drew their conclusions based on their observations and data.

In some countries, pressure comes from above (even at the government level) to bring employees back to the office to resume life as normal. Many CEOs and managing directors may pine for the days of issuing orders from the comfort of their executive suites, oblivious to the realities of the day-to-day work life of the average employee. 

For many employees, the office doesn’t compare to home. As such, there’s understandably a loud chorus of voices advocating for further experimentation with hybrid and remote work models. This, unsurprisingly, has meant some countries, such as the US, have been slow to bounce back to pre-COVID baselines.

Which US states have returned to work the fastest?

Interestingly, no US state has completely returned to its pre-COVID baselines. This table represents the five states that are closest to recovering their baselines. The figures are given as a negative percentage, which indicates how far off the state is from recovering its baseline. 

For example, South Dakota is at -5.3%, which means it has recovered 94.7% of its pre-COVID baseline.

US State

Baseline recovery (%)

South Dakota




North Dakota






Why is there a debate about returning to the office?

Now that more and more companies are considering returning to the office, it raises the question: Is it worth it?

There’s mounting evidence to suggest that many employees would prefer to continue working remotely while executives want employees to resume working from the office. While there’s more nuance to the debate, these are two areas we can explore to see the prevailing opinions and rationale on both sides.

Why do some businesses want office workers to get back to work?

The ultimate goal for any business is to grow and flourish, but ultimately, to make as much money as possible. With that end in mind, it’s easy to see why many businesses would want workers to go back to the office.

The 9-5 has been deeply ingrained in work culture ever since Henry Ford first introduced it in his factories in 1914. That’s over 100 years of collective belief in the business world that the 9-5 is the only working model that, well, works. 

The digital information age has brought new types of jobs and technologies that couldn’t have even been conceived of back then and allow employees to work from anywhere. However, many businesses have been unwavering in their commitment to the traditional work model.

On top of this, the reality is that many CEOs enjoy comfortable working spaces that go above and beyond the desk cubicle that most office workers use. It’s possible that there's a disparity between how higher-ups and employees view the office work environment in terms of comfort.

Future Forum, a report by remote work-friendly messaging platform Slack, highlights an ‘executive-employee’ disconnect. The report details how 66% of executives claim that their post-pandemic work plans involve little to no direct input from employees. 

So why is it that some companies are so eager to rush employees back into the office?

Advantages for companies getting the workforce back to the office

Creativity could be one driving factor in the pursuit of a quicker return to the office. A Columbia University-led experiment with around 1,500 participants found that brainstorming new ideas can be more challenging over video calls than in person.

This may confirm what some already believed to be true: The in-person work environment is superior for collaboration.

Work culture is another reason many cite for promptly returning to the office. Whether the way of working is antiquated or not, it has been that way for most of our lifetimes. Arguably, creating a strong work culture with shared values is easier to do with in-person interactions. 

Breakthroughs arise through moments of serendipity, and desk conversations prompt fresh ideas and inject energy into stale projects. These are the observations of an APA journal entry on ‘goal contagion,’ which posits that the in-person work environment breeds innovation and shared ambition. 

Disadvantages for companies getting the workforce back into the office

One of the biggest issues companies will have to contend with when bringing employees back to the office is talent retention. 

The Future Forum report outlines how more than half of knowledge workers (57%) are open to searching for a new job in the coming year. The percentage rises to 71% for those who aren’t currently satisfied with the flexibility they have in their current position.

With a mobile workforce that has experienced what remote work is like, it can be difficult to convince employees that going back to the office is the best move. Top talent now holds all the power. 

Before, offering a pay rise would usually help companies hold onto their top talent. These days, if their current company doesn’t offer employees flexible working hours or arrangements, money might not even be the most important factor.

The Owl Labs 2021 State of Remote Work report found that just 36% of people believe that the office is the best place for individual work. Companies may encounter productivity issues and struggle with workplace morale as few employees back themselves to put out their best work in the office — which could, in turn, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Return to Work: Which Global Cities Have Gone Back to the Office the Fastest? 2
Photo by Christina @ via Unsplash

Do workers want to continue working remotely?

There’s mounting evidence to suggest that most knowledge workers wish to continue working remotely. 

Microsoft’s landmark Work Trend Index 2022 highlights a new ‘worth it’ equation for employees that’s changing how they think about the way they work. The ‘worth it’ equation refers to what people want in their work, and what they would be willing to put in. This equation boils down to this: If there isn't a high ROI in the mind of the employee, then the job isn’t worth the effort.

53% of people are considering shifting to a hybrid work model in the year ahead, and the figures suggest that hybrid work will continue to grow in popularity from 2020.

One of the biggest findings in the survey was how employees now view work and its role in their lives through the ‘worth it’ equation. 53% of employees are more likely to prioritize their health and well-being over work, and 52% of Gen Z and Millennials will likely consider changing jobs this year.

Employees are no longer afraid to jump ship and find a new employer. This largely stems from a desire to find work that suits their lifestyle rather than settling for the highest salary. This shift in focus reflects a dynamic workforce that wants at least the option to be able to work remotely for a few days a week.

Advantages for employees working remotely

Employees working remotely could enjoy increased productivity levels. A study by Stanford of 16,000 workers over nine months concluded that productivity when working from home increased by around 13%.

This increase in productivity was largely due to the employees spending more minutes during their work shifts focusing on important work-related tasks. This lends weight to the idea that the office can be rife with distractions such as phone calls, meetings, and water-cooler conversations that interrupt workers’ ability to focus.

An SHRM report draws similar conclusions about working remotely. The report contains a survey conducted by ConnectSolutions, which found that 77% of people who work remotely at least a couple of times a month showed increased productivity. 30% were able to do more work in less time, while 24% did more work in the same period.

With access to team collaboration tools, working from home isn’t as challenging as it may seem. Team members can communicate and collaborate effectively outside the office as well as inside it.

Disadvantages for employees working remotely

Employees working from home also face significant challenges, even though it may seem like the best way to work for many.

While many office workers champion employee well-being as a primary reason to work remotely, the honeymoon period is wearing off for many, giving way to the rise of digital exhaustion.

The Microsoft Work Trend Index 2022 report shows that there has been an enormous 252% increase in weekly time spent in meetings for the average Microsoft Teams user since February 2020. There has also been a 32% increase in chats sent per person since March 2020.

This dramatic increase in how much time office workers spend staring at a computer screen, likely with poor posture at times, can profoundly impact mental health and overall well-being. This is especially true now in the digital age where, if we work from home, it’s easy to blur the lines between work and our personal lives.

Work days can stretch on, and the ping of an email or notification can come through late in the evening. Many of us assume that relying on asynchronous communication means we can send work-related messages to coworkers at all hours.

Where does hybrid work come into play?

The hybrid work model is seen by many as the future of work.

While how this can work at scale is still unclear, there has been a wave of market-leading companies marking the transition from purely office-based working to a hybrid model that allows for flexibility in office attendance.

With the vast number of enterprises signaling their intent to switch to a hybrid work model, logic follows that it won’t be long before it’s as common as the traditional 9-5. 

With hybrid work, employees and employers can effectively get the best of both worlds: They can enjoy all the benefits of in-person social interaction and goal contagion while also having several days of working at home to avoid distractions and work comfortably.

Here are just a few companies that have announced intentions to implement a hybrid work policy:

  • Spotify: Music streaming platform Spotify announced on February 12th, 2021, that employees could decide to work remotely, in the office, or a combination of both.
  • Microsoft: On October 9th, 2020, Microsoft announced that working remotely part of the time (less than 50%) would become the new standard for the company.
  • Ford: Interestingly, the company that is Henry Ford’s namesake is also leaning into hybrid work. The company announced on March 17th, 2021, that more than 30,000 employees worldwide could continue to work from home with flexible hours approved by their managers.

Final thoughts 

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t solely to blame for the big work culture shake-up we’re experiencing, but it certainly accelerated the rise of remote and hybrid work. Companies now find themselves facing a huge dilemma: to stick with the 9-5 or twist and adapt to the changing times.

While there seems to be a divide between what most employers and most employees want regarding work, one thing is certain: the view of the workplace has fundamentally changed, and there’s a pressing need to review current policies to thrive in the modern landscape.

The data is clear: For some cities around the world, the return to ‘normal’ has been swift. For others, however, there remains a great deal of uncertainty as to whether they’ll ever return to pre-COVID baseline levels.