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Real Estate Needs To Be In The Community-Building Business If It Wants People Back At The Office

Sartre might have thought hell is other people, but when it comes to getting workers back to the office, existentialism is out and community is in.

Landlords and employers have tried it all to lure reluctant Americans away from Zooming from their living rooms. But according to panelists at Bisnow's Chicago Tenant Wellness & Leasing Summit June 28, not enough thought goes into creating community and real estate's role in helping build it.


The return to the office has been a slow climb in Chicago, as evidenced by Kastle Systems’ Back to Work Barometer, which records the swipes of office building access cards. Though it has improved in recent weeks, with 41.9% of pre-pandemic office workers back on-site at least some of the week, it lags the national average of 44.2%.

Panelists said it is clear the climb from here can't be achieved with the same played-out strategies. 

“We say that we’re trying to meet a human need with real estate, and that human need is community,'' KORE Investments founding partner Jack Kim said.

“People don’t have it these days. We don't have the front porches. We’re not going to churches and synagogues as much. We don’t have PTO meetings. We don’t have that community, so people crave that, [and] so if we as landlords can create that ability … that’s what people really want. They need that warm-body interaction.” 

The past two-plus years have dealt a blow to office culture, but time away from tried-and-true office strategies has forced companies to reimagine how they can better meet the changing needs and demands of their employees. That means a sharp focus on building a strong in-office community, panelists said. It also means recognizing employee wellness and health are no longer a luxury but a necessity, they said, pointing to a Gallup poll finding that roughly 70% of American workers weren’t engaged at their jobs.

KORE Investments' Jack Kim, Sterling Bay's Jessica Brown, Global Workplace Solutions' Scott Phillips, Hiffman National's Carrie Szarzynski, Zeller's Howard Meyer and JLL Experience Management's Tyler Kethcart

This shift away from a sterile office setting to a social one is largely fueled by design. Long gone are the days of dingy office cubicles, solo workspaces and stale air. By offering maximum flexibility, tenants are blurring the lines between hotel and office, both operationally and aesthetically. 

Global Workplace Solutions Senior Director Scott Phillips said it is about making coming to the office an event and using space effectively. This could mean expanding a gym where an unused conference room once was or optimizing a coworking space to feel like a home living room.

“It’s about having an outdoor space [employees] can sit outside and do work from, having food available to them … the flexibility of different spaces to sit in," Hiffman National Senior Vice President Carrie Szarzynski said. "Nobody wants to sit at the same desk all day long. They want to be able to go to a collaborative space and sit with their peers and have a conversation."

Arch Amenities Group's Mike Flanagan, Riverside Investment & Development Co.'s Rafael Carreira, Hines' Brian Atkinson, Cyclone Energy Group's Benjamin Skelton and 33 Realty's Chet Kondas.

The need for flexibility also extends to health and wellness amenities. The expansion of fitness centers, massage therapy spaces, quiet rooms, and lounge and cocktail spaces helps attract and retain talent, as do services once available solely to executives.

“When you think about what people are asking for, it’s a space where they can do PT or massage therapy or a specialized treatment on-site,” Hines Managing Director Brian Atkinson said. "It becomes all about the integration of wellness, the whole person, the whole employee.”

Both panels echoed that none of this is possible unless a strong feedback loop and consistent conversation, facilitated through data and technology, happens with the entire office.

“One thing I think every single employer should do is survey the employees —every single employee of theirs in the Chicago office at every major milestone,” Sterling Bay Director of Leasing Jessica Brown said. “I think that type of collaboration with the landlord is important, but also the employers' collaboration with the employee — that’s a real must-have.”