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2021 Will See Workers Return, But Striking A Balance Between Safety And Efficiency Won't Be Easy

2020 has been the year of Zoom conferences, but the advent of several workable coronavirus vaccines seems likely to begin making it safer for workers to return to their offices sometime in 2021. Many tenants may still decide to keep employees at home for an extended period, so landlords will need to decide what they need to provide to get those workers back.

What tenants demand may not be what landlords expected back when the pandemic first started. In spring and summer, much of the chatter among office stakeholders involved how to implement safety procedures such as temperature screenings for workers who returned. Although heightened concerns over future viruses will transform the workplace, months of using advanced conference technology has also changed expectations.

HKS Architects' "living lab" space at 125 South Clark St. in Chicago

“For me, the why of why people are going to show up to the office has changed and will continue to change,” 1871 CEO Betsy Ziegler said Dec. 17 during Bisnow’s Chicago Deep Dish: State of the Office webinar. “The experience that they expect when they’re there is different than the experience that they expected beforehand.”

At 1871, Chicago’s largest tech incubator, most people are going to show up only several days per week and use Zoom or other technology the rest of the time, she added. Rather than worry only about virus transmission, vaccinated workers will come back not merely because a building has stringent safety precautions but to personally collaborate with all the colleagues they’ve only seen for months on computer screens.

“It’s what can I get there that I can’t get at home,” Ziegler said.

Landlords should cater to those needs and ensure each space has enough private spaces where employees can work on their own, alongside the latest technology that allows them to still collaborate and convene with officemates and homebound workers, she added.

“They’re looking for the latest and best of how they’re going to communicate and produce.”  

Concerns about viruses won’t vanish, but Ziegler said she doesn’t expect fundamental changes to buildings’ structures or that high-tech amenities will allay lingering fears.

“There is only so much I can adapt in my physical space, and so we’re spending most of our time not on technology things but on changing the culture around safety and how we expect people to behave and operate,” she said. “We don’t have control over anything to do with the plumbing system, anything to do with the HVAC, so we have to figure out where can we influence, and most of that isn’t leveraging technology.”

Clockwise from top left: 1871's Betsy Ziegler, SBA Communications' Harry Wolle and Free Market Ventures' William Flatt

1871 helped convene about 40 business leaders during the summer to discuss protocol for returning to the office. Although a lot of ideas were implemented, the experience gained may not work during this next phase.

“We have only seen it operational with 20 people in the space,” Ziegler said. “We have not seen it operational with 500 people. What if people aren’t wearing their face coverings? How are they going to react when we say they have to?”

The larger office populations in 2021 won’t be easy to characterize or manage. Some will have the vaccine, some won’t and still others will have the coronavirus antibodies, and companies will need to decide if those differences will call for different rules for office workers.

“We were all-physical, only in person — the only way to consume the 1871 experience was in person. Now we’re 100% virtual, and over the next several months, we’ll start to be a blend of both,” Ziegler said. “The level of complexity is going to go up in the short term before we find our balance.”