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Chicago Executives Say Office Workers Are Coming Back, And Coming Back Soon

C-suite executives from a wide variety of industries have sent a clear message: The long-debated return to the office is going to happen and happen soon.

The omicron variant is still hanging around, infecting several hundred Chicagoans each day, but those numbers have been in a steep dive for weeks. And among Chicago businesses, confidence is high that a flood of employees will soon be headed back downtown.

More than 80% of 68 local business leaders surveyed in December by Chicago Returns, a group of professionals who advocate a return to normal downtown activity, said a majority of their employees will be back by April. Most also said workers would make the commute for three or more days each week and spend the other days still working from home.

A new office design by Perkins&Will

Chicago Returns anticipated top local executives would support a return to the office, according to JLL Senior Managing Director Steve Steinmeyer, a member of the group. But the survey results were still unexpected.

“We were still surprised by the decisiveness of these responses,” he said.

Those surveyed ran businesses of varying sizes and represented a host of different industries, including finance, manufacturing, tech, healthcare and many others. But in general, the responses were similar. After a 23-month experiment with Zoom calls and homebound workforces, companies sorely miss the opportunities to mentor youthful employees, as well as the everyday personal interactions that spark ideas and create corporate cultures.

“Companies are finding out that while this experiment has shown we can do things differently, it’s also shown why people congregate in offices in the first place,” Steinmeyer said.

BOMA Chicago Executive Director Farzin Parang said these results are consistent with his organization’s own surveys of small downtown firms, ones with fewer than 50 employees. Most leaders in this sector said the next few months will see their companies go back as well.

“It’s not a question of if but when we will return to the office,” Parang said.

What those new offices will look like in the long term isn't yet known. But so far, experts say companies aren’t talking about a revolution in office layouts. Instead, 2022 will be a year of experimentation, with firms testing how to integrate in-office employees and those who still spend much of their time at home. And many of those experiments will be with types of workspaces, including small huddle rooms, even smaller private spaces and tech-heavy conference rooms, which were already growing more popular before the pandemic upended everything.

“People are still waiting to see what Covid’s permanent impact will be, so they’re not going in and doing wholesale renovations,” Steinmeyer said. “I haven’t heard of any group that went in and blew up their whole configuration.”

Another sign that most firms will at least initially make only modest changes is that office footprints aren’t changing much, according to Telos Group Senior Vice President Nikki Kern.

“It’s not like we’re seeing people dump office space,” she said.

Her firm signed 18 new tenants in 2021 for a total of 150K SF at the 1.2M SF One South Wacker Drive in the West Loop. Many other buildings leased by Telos also saw healthy tenant pipelines, she added. And although some did decide to make minor adjustments, including slightly shrinking their footprints, many aren't ready to make final decisions about how employees will work together in their new spaces.

“They’ve got Mary from accounting who can work from home each day,” Kern said, while others may need to be in the office most of the time.

"Everyone will find their own balance, but all the changes will be fluid and case-by-case," Parang said.

The turmoil means a lot of new business for interior architects.

“We’re seeing an uptick in requests for all kinds of design services,” Perkins&Will Practice Leader Michael Reinhart said.

Clients are asking the Chicago-based design practice to not only create new offices but also provide workplace strategic planning that helps firms figure out how employees will use their new spaces after switching to hybrid, he said. And the most important features will be ones that entice workers to return.

“Everyone needs to ask, ‘What is the office going to provide that people didn’t have while working from home?’” Reinhart said.

One South Wacker Drive

Immersive technology for advanced studio spaces where presentations take place will become more common. In addition, building amenities such as bars, gyms and other social spaces will help employees feel less isolated after several years away from their co-workers. At the same time, offices should also provide the comforts of home. That includes privacy and quiet through small huddle rooms or other spaces.

“It’s going to be a combination of all these things,” Reinhart said.

But none of it is radical, he added. In the runup to the pandemic, many companies were already choosing to give up certain 21st-century office fads, including open spaces and benching, offering employees both more privacy and more amenities.

“We’re not going to see new, space-age workplaces,” he said. “What the pandemic has done is accelerate the workplace transformations that were already taking place.”

JLL’s Steinmeyer, a tenant rep, has heard the same thing from his clients.

“My guess is that the workplaces of 2023 will look more alike than different from the workplaces of the first months of 2020,” he said. “They won’t be unrecognizable.”  

Accounting firm CohnReznick already offered a hybrid workplace before the pandemic hit, with many of its workers coming in three days a week to its office at 200 South Wacker Drive in the West Loop, according to office Managing Partner Jason Burian. That made switching to a work-from-home model relatively easy, though the pandemic did show the firm it could make do with less space.

This June, CohnReznick will move from its current 17K SF office to 14K SF in One South Wacker Drive, Burian said, and that should be enough for its roughly 100 regular employees, even if the firm expands in the next few years.

“I still think we can fit everyone in and be comfortable,” he said.

Like many firms moving during the pandemic, CohnReznick also wanted its new office to be more appealing to employees, the majority of whom are under 30, he added. The building opened a new amenity floor in 2021 that provides a gym, rooftop deck and bar within a three-story atrium. The company will also make sure to have more huddle rooms and conference spaces, as well as a bigger, more open kitchen in a central location.

“Our staff wanted to make sure we had more social space,” Burian said. 

Yet other than the modest shrinking of its footprint, the pandemic could end up having little impact on CohnReznick’s workplace strategy. Creating an environment that provided more amenities and private spaces had already been the long-term plan, according to Burian.    

“We 100% would have done the same thing.”