Worker migration to pick up as pandemic and winter loosen grips

Chicago’s business core could see activity jump in April as companies encourage more staff to return to the office.

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A view of Glassdoor’s offices at 1330 W. Fulton St.

Glassdoor’s offices at 1330 W. Fulton St.


In spring, a young worker’s thoughts are apt to turn to … getting back to the office, maybe?

Now that the pandemic is waning and the calendar points to appreciably longer days and warmer temperatures, more companies are implementing a general return to the office for their employees, even if a hybrid schedule — part work-from-home — remains in the mix.

Experts who track commercial space usage believe more workers will be office-bound come April, provided there’s no setback with COVID-19. Projected timetables for office returns have come and gone during this health crisis, but this time, with mask mandates falling, optimism is up. It could be the best news in months for office landlords worried that congregate work settings were getting obsolete and the array of services that depend on people being in business districts.

Chicago Enterprise bug

Consider Google, with 1,500 workers based in Chicago. It was an early adopter of workplace flexibility, even encouraging fully remote employment and transfers to small-town and rural locations. Those agreements remain in place, but Google said last week it expects most U.S. employees to start a hybrid schedule on April 4. A spokesperson said staffers are expected to use March to plan the transition and that most should spend three days per week in the office, with local teams deciding the details. “We’re at the start of our hybrid work journey” and will continue to experiment, a company summary said.

The jobs placement site Glassdoor, its Chicago installation close to Google in Fulton Market, shut its locations in March 2020. Spokeswoman Christine Snyder said Chicago will reopen April 5, and she commented that she’s “really looking forward” to it. It’s up to employees how much they use the office, she said.

Other employers have been back for a while, with flexibility the norm. Investment bank Lincoln International, with 250 people in Chicago, has been in the office since last summer, with interruptions for the COVID-19 variants, and has found the hybrid model to people’s liking, said Carrie Grapenthin, global chief marketing officer.

Uber said it expects more people back in coming weeks at its space in the Old Post Office, where 2,000 people are assigned. Amazon, with its 1,000-person tech hub in the Loop, has left decisions about remote work up to individual teams, and that’s not changing, an executive said.

Those who keep tabs on downtown like the trends. The Chicago Loop Alliance, representing businesses, reports that sidewalks and restaurants are getting busier and more rush-hour commuting is obvious. Data the group has tracked during the pandemic, such as pedestrian counts and parking garage use, support that conclusion.

By most accounts, downtown offices are 30% to 40% occupied. Compared with other cities, Chicago is a laggard in this category, judging from statistics from Kastle, a provider of building security systems. The Chicago occupancy rate has shown slow improvement for most of the pandemic but then took a blow when the Omicron variant emerged late last year. The hope now is that it’s licked.

“It’s going to be like the end of March when we see the big return,” said Lisa Davidson, vice chairman at Savills, which advises office tenants. “Weather has a lot to do with it.” She said many employers continue to wrestle with details about hybrid schedules and making allowances for returning workers, such as providing more open spaces for collaboration. Some buildings are opening rooftops or terraces to provide outdoor access.

Landlords and tenants are adding creature comforts and food to offices to entice people back. But some employees prefer their couch or den nonetheless. Davidson said people who care for small children are especially reluctant to leave the home office, while others are just used to the arrangement. She recalled a conversation with one executive whose message was, “I’m not going back to two hours commuting just for a free bagel.”

Davidson said young workers are the most likely to want office time. She said some of that stems from FOMO — fear of missing out on things such as social events and mentoring by senior staff. Also, nobody wants to be that last stubborn person at home who forces every meeting to be on Zoom.

But when staffers return, they’ll want something better than the crammed-in, open-plan offices that have been in vogue. Diane Hoskins, co-CEO of the design firm Gensler, weighed in on that topic during an interview the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. published online. “The distractions and noise in open-plan offices can intensify the stress that people experience, and research reveals that workers with unassigned office space are among the most dissatisfied in the workplace and the least effective,” she said.

“As more organizations implement unassigned workspaces, leading to greater densities in the workplace, that drives more dysfunction and reduces the ability of people to focus. Work from home may be, if not the solution, an outcry of some of the manifestations of the problem.”

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