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Landlords try homey touches to get you back to the office

Amenities from outdoor space to ‘nap pods’ and cushier lobbies are aimed at easing the transition from remote work.

The bar available to tenants at 222 N. La Salle St.
The bar available to tenants at 222 N. La Salle St.
Tishman Speyer

If the pandemic has put you on a work-from-home regimen, chances are you’ve come to terms with the arrangement.

There’s the coffee the way you want it, the dress code is gone, the commute is from one room to the next, and nobody minds if you knock off for a while to get your kids to soccer. Flexibility is the new rule, and some form of it is expected to survive once the pandemic blessedly abates.

But that has office building landlords concerned. They want you back, at least regularly if not every day. There’s a kind of arms race in building amenities designed to coax people out of their homes because landlords know if there is less demand for physical offices, tenants don’t need all that space.

“Before, we were competing with other landlords. Now we are competing with people’s apartments,” said Thais Galli, managing director at property owner Tishman Speyer.

At the 26-story Tishman-managed building at 222 N. La Salle St., the lobby has been renovated to include a tenants-only area called the Clubhouse. It has places to work out, meditate, get a manicure, eat lunch prepared by steakhouse Prime & Provisions or enjoy happy hour.

Places to eat, drink, relax, exercise or socialize are common themes. Some buildings have declared an entire floor as amenities-only, and on a high level with views. Examples include the tower at 1 S. Wacker Drive. On the 28th floor is a three-story glass atrium lounge connecting to an outdoor deck, an “executive-style” health club and a space for “nap pods,” futuristic-looking recliners.

In 2017, Aon Center at 200 E. Randolph St. opened amenities on its 70th floor. But it also has paid attention to the ground level and whether it’s inviting for tenants or visitors. The building opened last week a redesigned plaza that minimizes the old granite-heavy effect, creating a front yard for this 1972 colossus.

Some landlords started this before the pandemic, but COVID-19 accelerated the trend, said Lori Mukoyama, a principal at the design firm Gensler, which has worked with many building owners. She said the attention has extended from lobbies, which are starting to look like hotels, up to the rooftops, where the Old Post Office at 433 W. Van Buren St. has set the standard, creating a 3.5-acre park and event space.

Common areas are getting sofas, area rugs, bookshelves and lots of plants to mimic the comforts of home, she said. At developer Sterling Bay’s new building at 333 N. Green St., there’s a room with a pivoting bookcase that swings open to a private reading room, Mukoyama said. She said she’s working on a design for a music listening room at a site to be named.

Lori Mukoyama, a principal at the design firm Gensler
Lori Mukoyama
Gensler

The most recent buildings in booming Fulton Market have prioritized tenant access to outdoor space. But Mukoyama said existing buildings also have gotten creative. Willis Tower has added outdoor yoga while also “curating a really great food hall” to attract tenants, she said. Mukoyama is working with the Merchandise Mart to open some space facing the river and to redesign how its interior storefronts connect to the hallways.

The desire for fitness is built into many designs. Pool tables and shuffleboard often turn up in buildings now, and the Old Post Office lets you shoot hoops on the roof. Having a gym on-site is standard issue. So far, people in Chicago haven’t demanded accommodations for pets, although that’s a thing in California, said Tishman’s Galli.

Is all this a bit too much imbibing, relaxing, socializing at work? “The last year and a half, we were taught we still get our work done when we’re not stuck in our 5-foot cubicles,” Mukoyama said.

Meanwhile, the Great Migration back to the office has been on hold as the Delta variant prowls. Data from Kastle, which provides building security systems, shows that in the Chicago area, office buildings are at about 31% of their occupancy levels. A year ago, it was around 20%.

The region ranks in the middle of the 10 top U.S. metros. Companies had talked about calling people back after July 4th and Labor Day. Now, it’s into next year.

Robert Sevim, vice chairman in Chicago for Savills, which represents tenants in lease negotiations, said bosses and their workers still want the advantages of face-to-face contact and the collaboration it fosters. The amenities fit with that.

“What they get by being in the office has to be more appealing and effective than staying at home ad infinitum,” he said.

Landlords swallow the cost of amenities and give up rentable square feet, yet “it’s a smart move because it brings in the tenants that fill the rest of the space,” Sevim said.

Yes, napping and games are getting to be OK at the office. Leave the PJs and the pooch at home, but it’s looking good for your favorite slippers.

A quiet space for tenants at 333 N. Green St.
A quiet space for tenants at 333 N. Green St.
Tom Harris/Design by Gensler
A bocce court inside a lounge at the Old Post Office, 433 W. Van Buren St.
A bocce court inside a lounge at the Old Post Office, 433 W. Van Buren St.
Eric Laignel/Design by Gensler