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Downtown workforce will return to a ‘new normal,’ top mayoral aide says

Samir Mayekar, Chicago’s deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development, said a new “workplace eco-system” will have a “hub campus,” more “local community hubs” and “on-demand event space,” plus more people working from home.

The Chicago economy is being hit hard by the global pandemic, and the cost is likely to exceed half a billion dollars, according to the city’s chief financial officer.
An empty Daley Plaza on a weekday in April near the start of the state’s stay-home order.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicago’s downtown workforce is now operating at just 10% of pre-pandemic levels but will return over time under a “new normal” for downtown office space, a top mayoral aide said Thursday.

Samir Mayekar, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development, is bullish on Chicago and its ability to come roaring back from the stay-at-home-shutdown triggered by the coronavirus because it already is among the nation’s top four cities in consumer spending growth after carefully managing its reopening.

But Mayekar is also realistic about the changes that might be required to make downtown companies feel safe enough to bring employees back.

To underscore the point about a “new normal” that includes a “workplace eco-system,” Mayekar cited a recent “future of the workplace” study put out by real estate brokerage powerhouse Cushman & Wakefield after a survey of tens of thousands of office workers worldwide.

“You very much are going to need … your hub campus. Oftentimes, that’s downtown. … But there’s gonna possibly be a demand for more third places in the city. For those lunch or coffee or informal meetings. … There could be the need for more local community hubs. There could be the need for more on-demand event space,” he said.

“Additionally, there could be some increased work from home that would [impact] office space in terms of folks having a little bit more space to themselves, given social distancing needs. If some folks are taking their Mondays or Fridays or working from home a little more often, you can see the increase of ‘hoteling’ in office buildings where you have more flexible office spaces to adapt to the times.”

Mayekar argued nothing can replace the camaraderie, energy and mental health that comes with inter-personal interaction in a central workplace. You just “can’t get that over Zoom,” he said.

That’s particularly true for the youngest employees, who are more likely to have roommates and “live in very small quarters,” as Mayekar put it. They don’t just want to be back in the office — they need to return to get “mentorship” and guidance to “rise through the organization,” he said.

For those reasons and more, Mayekar does not expect to see a long-term fallout of the downtown office market. It just “might look a little bit different than before,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone thinks that, post-COVID, we’ll be completely back to normal. There will be a new normal. But that new normal doesn’t necessarily mean a net decrease in leased space.

“What’s most important is that businesses get relief in terms of support from Washington and that the economy gets back up and running. … You need to have your top line as a business grow. You need to be profitable as well on the bottom line. That’s the most key thing to making sure you can afford those real estate obligations.”

The downtown workforce has been slow to return. Many businesses are allowing employees to work remotely until January. Others plan to wait until there’s a safe and widely-distributed vaccine.

And Chicago is not alone.

“If you look at downtown occupancy, right now most transit-dependent cities like New York and Chicago are at about 10% of normal capacity. We are not, kind of an aberration from what you see nationally. It’s pretty consistent in that 8-to-10% range in most large cities,” Mayekar said.

As temperatures drop, restaurant capacity, outdoor dining at issue

Chicago restaurants and bars are still operating at 25% capacity indoors while bracing for the cold weather that will soon take away the life raft known as outdoor dining.

That’s why the city recently launched a design competition, asking people to re-imagine what outdoor dining might look like in Chicago during cold winter months.

On Thursday, Mayekar said he is “optimistic” Chicago’s daily case and percent positivity rates will improve enough that indoor dining capacity might soon be increased.

“As we see more stability there, we’ll be able to, hopefully, continue to turn up that dimmer switch. Maybe not to 50%. But, we hope to get close. … Somewhere between 25 and 50%,” he said.

As for the outdoor design competition, winners from among the 643 respondents are expected to be announced in early October.

They include possibly using “large ballrooms and convention halls” like McCormick Place for indoor dining, allowing tables to be spread widely apart.