New York (AFP)

Life is resuming in the business districts, the lines lengthen again for lunch in the salad bars and large companies are calling their employees to return to the skyscrapers: the signs of a return to the office are multiplying in New York, in a hybrid way for now.

After 14 months of widespread teleworking due to the pandemic and a vigorous vaccination campaign, several emblematic firms of the American economic capital are preparing for a massive face-to-face return of their employees: the JPMorgan Chase bank opened the march at the end of April in calling on its American employees to return to the office, according to a rotation system, by the beginning of July.

Another New York financial giant, Goldman Sachs last Tuesday urged its employees to prepare to return to the office from June 14.

Announcements in addition to that of the lifting of most restrictions in New York on May 19, against the backdrop of a continuous decline in the rate of positivity for Covid-19, now around 2%.

Officials are also concerned: New York City Hall began to bring back 80,000 employees last Monday.

- "Optimism" -

These requests to employees seem to want to accelerate a return movement that was just beginning in a metropolis hit hard by the pandemic in spring 2020, before becoming a model of caution in the face of the coronavirus: the proportion of employees returning to the office , which had peaked at around 13% since January, topped 16% at the end of April, according to the Kastle company.

"There is clearly an upward but very gradual trend," the president of this company specializing in the security of office buildings, Mark Ein, told AFP.

"It's a slow rising wave."

While New York occupancy rates remain below the US average, some predict a sharp increase in the next two months.

"We are witnessing a radical change," says Craig Deitelzweig, president of Marx Realty, a company managing seven buildings in the business districts of Midtown and Wall Street, in Manhattan, whose occupancy rate, recently 20%, returned last week above the 30% mark.

“Before, when we asked our tenants when they would come back, they said September. Now we mean June or July, even May sometimes,” he says.

As a corollary of this recovery, a strong demand for outdoor spaces and openable windows, he explains, which is not always the case in the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

"Looking out the window before, I couldn't see anyone on the sidewalks," said Robert Byrnes, president of the East Midtown Partnership, a business association in Midtown, from his offices on 3rd Avenue.

"Now it's not crowded but I see dozens of people. (...) There is clearly a feeling of optimism."

- Distrustful employees -

Yet many employees remain reluctant, especially when they depend on long journeys by public transport.

Nadjeda Estriplet, human relations manager at a financial technology company, left her Brooklyn home last week for her Manhattan office, an hour away, for the first time since switching to telecommuting.

For her, no question of rushing things.

Especially since she still prefers to observe reactions to new vaccines and wait until summer to get immunized.

Like many, her company has surveyed its employees and "leans for a hybrid operation" from September, with two or three days maximum of mandatory presence in the office, she said.

Jordan, 34, an account manager at a large financial company, also hopes to be able to continue working at home at least two or three days a week, and thus avoid two hours of commuting each day.

Working mainly from home allowed him to "sleep better and eat healthier," he says.

So far, his employer "has not put any pressure" but he expects, with apprehension, new instructions soon.

Companies seem aware of the hesitations of their employees: in its note to staff, Goldman Sachs - where young executives recently denounced endemic overwork - gives employees the opportunity to discuss their situation with their superiors.

Almost three-quarters (72%) of American employers - who now make the "mental health" of their employees a priority - say they are open to hybrid operation but generally state that employees are at least in the office. 20 hours a week, according to a study released in late April by Arizona State University and the Rockefeller Foundation.

This flexibility could be explained by their reluctance to require vaccination: less than half (44%) of companies want to impose it on all their employees and 32% prefer to "encourage", according to this study.

© 2021 AFP