Navigating Safety Concerns Created by Reduced Office Occupancy Rates

Many facets of life have returned to the pre-COVID-19-pandemic “normal.” For example, most people are no longer afraid to dine in a packed restaurant or to go shopping without a mask. But in at least one important aspect, the effects of the pandemic are still with us and continue to impact large and small businesses alike.

February 05, 2024 — by Drew Neckar, Principal Consultant

Many facets of life have returned to the pre-COVID-19-pandemic “normal.” For example, most people are no longer afraid to dine in a packed restaurant or to go shopping without a mask. But in at least one important aspect, the effects of the pandemic are still with us and continue to impact large and small businesses alike.

Across the U.S., office utilization has not come back to its pre-pandemic levels. Not even close. In fact, it has plateaued at approximately 60% from the occupancy levels in 2019. While some companies are taking an aggressive approach to forcing their employees back into the office, many have adopted a hybrid approach or embraced a remote-first workplace.

Beyond their impact on productivity and team cohesiveness, the significant shifts in how and where we work have also created new risks and hazards, both within the organization itself and in its physical vicinity. Within the organization, the changing nature of work presents several challenges, including:

  • Many traditional security measures, including the concept of “see something, say something” are predicated on the concept of a “capable guardian” being present to observe and report potential negative or suspicious behaviors occurring in a space. With offices staffed at half or in some cases one third or less of their pre-COVID occupancy the employees who performed this function are often no longer in place.
  • Risks and hazards associated with reconfigured physical spaces, or spaces shared with other businesses.
  • Uncertainty about who’s supposed to be in the office on any given day because of inconsistent schedules, rotating days off, and split schedules.
  • Providing adequate safety resources for employees working remotely.
  • Company systems and data frequently accessed from remote locations.

In addition to these internal organizational challenges, remote and hybrid work is also affecting urban areas with high concentrations of office buildings. For example, there is now less foot traffic in downtowns and other office-heavy neighborhoods. Moreover, during the pandemic, a significant number of people have relocated, finding cheaper and more spacious housing options farther away from their work, and further hollowing out city cores.  

As a result, employees may find the area surrounding their workplace to be less safe than it was before the pandemic. Similarly, whether commuting by public transportation or in their own cars, employees may now experience the commute as dangerous, stressful, and unpleasant. These impressions can be a significant factor in employees’ reluctance to return to the office. And if the feeling of unsafety is great enough, it can even lead some people to seek other jobs – either those that will allow them to work remotely or those that are perceived to be located in a safer environment.

If the organization’s goal is to bring its workforce back to the office, it must take the safety and security concerns of its employees seriously. Without addressing these issues, any program designed to incentivize a return to the office is likely to fall short. 

The iterative process of creating a safe workplace

To tackle the various risks and hazards brought on by the new reality of work, it is no longer sufficient to ensure that the office has secure physical locks, adequate lighting, and an access control system. Now, the organization must take a proactive approach to ensuring its employees’ actual and perceived safety at work, during their commutes, and while working remotely. To do so, the organization must create and promote an inclusive culture of safety, in which every employee is a stakeholder and a partner.

The process of creating an effective safety and security program – and promoting a holistic culture of safety – is iterative with three essential steps:

  1. Assessment. The formulation of an effective safety and security plan must start with an assessment of the organization’s current circumstances – including workplace hazards faced by employees at the office, in remote locations, and during commutes and work travel. When an organization has a full picture of the threats and risks faced by its workforce, it has the information it needs to choose the most appropriate solutions – be it new policies and procedures, additional employee safety training, newer technology, or additional security personnel.
  2. Implementation of solutions, policies, and procedures. After conducting a thorough assessment, many employers will find that they need to reimagine their approach to safety and security because the previous approach was formulated in the pre-pandemic world. In addition to updating or revising existing policies – or creating entirely new policies – an organization may need to invest in new technology as well as expand its mandatory safety and security training for employees. Such training may include best practices for commuting and travel security, de-escalation techniques, reacting to active assailant situations, and training on any new technologies or physical safety and security measures implemented by the organization.
  3. Open dialogue and reassessment. The threat environment is constantly evolving, and the organization’s safety and security program must evolve to meet the current circumstances. To that end, an organization must create a system for timely reporting of incidents, hazards, threats, and other unsafe conditions. It also should be open to receiving employee feedback about which safety and security measures work and which don’t. The information gathered through these reports and feedback forms the basis for a periodic review of the organization’s safety and security plan to maximize its effectiveness. 

If your organization is considering revising its workplace safety and security plans and would like to conduct an assessment of your current needs and opportunities, we can help. Reach out to Drew Neckar, MBA, CPP, COSECURE’s Principal Consultant and a board-certified security and crime prevention professional with more than 25 years of experience as a practitioner, consultant, instructor, trainer, keynote speaker, author, and volunteer leader.


COSECURE, an ancillary business of Cozen O'Connor, has been on the leading edge of security and risk management for over 20 years and is actively protecting global Fortune 100 companies, law and technology firms, and high net worth individuals.

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