Covid Left Workers Scarred. Now Companies Plan To Ease Them Back Into The Office
Last summer’s vaccination campaign had many firms convinced Covid-19 was about to recede, but the advent of the delta and omicron variants derailed plans to bring employees back to the office.
Now the dropping of mask mandates and the steep decline in the number of infections has companies feeling optimistic again, and most have plans in place to at least start ramping up the long-awaited return to the workplace. Few expect it's going to be easy, or that 2022 workplaces will look as they did in 2019.
“It’s been a challenge because I think people are scarred by having Covid go way up, then down, and there is some resistance to being back in group settings,” Datassential Chief People Officer Kanupriya Chaudhary said.
The Chicago-based software firm serves the food and beverage industry, and like many downtown companies, it just traded up into a building with better amenities than its old location, partly to entice back employees accustomed to working from home. It fully opened in February a new Fulton Market office in Twelve01West, a seven-story building at 176 North Racine Ave., developed in 2019 by McCaffery Interests.
Unlike its old office on Michigan Avenue, the Fulton Market location is accessible to public transportation, and includes a roof terrace, outdoor seating and an advanced fitness center, Chaudhary added. Along with the many team events and potlucks put together by Datassential managers, it’s all in service of enticing employees to venture back downtown.
“We’re not forcing people to come back,” she said. “And we definitely need some ways to nudge people. It’s not as natural as it used to be.”
The vast majority of companies are staying flexible as they begin this process, according to Colliers International Executive Vice President Dougal Jeppe, with most asking people to start coming in roughly three days a week. Although there is some divide between corporate leaders and employees on the issue, with the latter more likely to advocate work-from-home strategies, many firms are also choosing to simply encourage workers to return, rather than making it a requirement.
“Companies are not approaching this in a heavy-handed way, saying ‘you’re coming back to the office,’” Jeppe said. “It’s a push-pull. And so far, the only pattern we see is that since the beginning of the year, most companies moved into the planning phase and now have a defined back-to-work strategy.”
Tech firms led the way in creating the work-from-home model, but hybrid work schedules will soon be the norm. Google announced on March 2 that employees were required to come back to the office at least three days a week starting April 4, though they can still apply for an extension and stay at home, permanently switch to remote work, or even switch offices, Jeppe added.
During the omicron wave, Apple aborted plans to bring workers back by Feb. 1, but company leaders said last week that the company is beginning to ramp up in-office work, encouraging people to come back once a week at first, and three days a week by May 23, according to a report in Digital Trends.
Some firms began shifting strategies earlier. Goldman Sachs announced in January it wanted to boost its in-office workforce, which then stood at about 20% of employees in the U.S., according to a report in Fortune.
“We really deeply believe, certainly for Goldman Sachs, that we function better when we’re together,” Chief Operating Officer John Waldron said.
Both Colliers International and Goldman Sachs have their Chicago offices in 71 South Wacker Drive in the West Loop, Jeppe said, and the financial giant’s shift has already had a noticeable impact.
“As of last month, I’ve seen a lot more Goldman employees here,” he said.
Some firms have adopted a stricter approach. Leaders of Chicago-based law firm Kirkland & Ellis said in February they expected staff to come in on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays starting March 29, although they added that other approaches to in-office or hybrid options were still possible.
Chaudhary said Datassential still prefers to just nudge people. On any given day, about 15% to 20% of the workforce comes into the office, although that number can surge if the company holds a social event.
“I am 100% confident that this number will go up and up, especially when the weather improves and it’s not so cold and snowy,” she said.
Bringing people back is key to the company’s future, she added. Although the firm eventually built up a solid online workplace culture, filled with happy hours and team meetings, some employees now say they have Zoom fatigue.
“We have a lot of teams that need to speak to each other on a daily basis, and some people were just fed up being at home, and now that kids are back in school, they also needed a change of scenery,” Chaudhary said.
The company’s new office is a significant change from the Michigan Avenue location, she added. In addition to the amenities, Datassential built out its space during the pandemic, and it included a lot of collaboration and hangout areas that are more like living rooms than offices. And instead of individual desks, the company now uses hot-desking. Many people proved they can be very productive when working from home, so that will also remain an option. The company has even started to hire new employees who live outside the Chicago region and will work remote full time.
“It's now about where you can find the best people,” Chaudhary said.
Jeppe said these workplace strategies aren’t unusual. Many of his office clients now say they will need 20% to 50% less space and are ready to make the jump from Class-B and Class-C spaces in submarkets such as the Central Loop to newer, Class-A properties in the West Loop or Fulton Market.
“The As and the trophy buildings are going to be the winners, and the Bs and Cs will have to fight to retain tenants,” he said.
The long-term impact on demand is uncertain, he added. A lot of firms have already downsized, greatly expanding downtown Chicago’s sublease market, which just reached a historic high of 5.8M SF, an 80% increase over Q1 2020, according to an MBRE report.
In addition, many Chicago firms are expanding, and rather than cut space, they may just decide they don’t need extra room to accommodate new employees.
Other firms plan to hold onto all their space.
Wight & Co., an architectural, design and construction firm with offices in downtown Chicago and suburban Darien, began bringing its people back a few months after the initial shutdown in March 2020, CEO Mark Wight said. The company reached 50% density on at least several days per week, although everyone was frequently wearing masks and social distancing. Many more wanted to return.
“I was skeptical about working from home, but we did it quite successfully, I’d say, and produced world-class designs on time,” he said. “But we’ve hired a lot of people, including kids just out of school, and they are the ones that really wanted to come back to the office, mostly because they feel they’re not learning.
“To meet co-workers coincidentally, ask impromptu questions and have the chance to get in-person design critiques are essential,” Wight added. “Even though we were serving clients well, the development of our talent suffered noticeably.”
The roughly 200-person company held a leadership meeting on March 9 to set goals for getting people back in the office. Wight said they want to reach 80% density three days a week, most likely Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
“It’s frankly unrealistic to expect 80% on Mondays, but if we could get to 60%, I’ll be happy.”
Wight & Co. is applying a light touch. If someone is on a deadline and prefers to skip a lengthy commute, or can’t arrange childcare, Wight said, they can still work at home.
“A number of our team members are still struggling to find childcare, and if they need to stay home for that reason it’s fine.”
As at Datassential, working remote will also be available for out-of-towners.
“We have a new designer who lives somewhere on the western slope of the Rockies, we’re not sure where,” Wight said. “But he’s already producing great work.”