Nerdery finds COVID-19 takes the fun out of office life

The digital consultancy, which once had big plans for Chicago, is reevaluating its Near West Side location.

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The Nerdery signs on the building at 1033 W. Van Buren St.

The Nerdery has terminated its lease for two floors at 1033 W. Van Buren St.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

For Chicago “nerds,” setting up a hip office in the Near West Side once was a great idea. Not anymore.

“Nerds” are what Nerdery, a digital consulting and design firm, proudly calls its employees. In late 2015, the company moved to 1033 W. Van Buren St., outfitting it to create an irresistible place to work. Tech-oriented news outlets said it had the requisite beer, gaming space, themed conference rooms and tolerance of pets.

It also put signs on the building to announce Nerdery to commuters on the adjacent Eisenhower Expressway.

But things have changed and COVID-19 may have played a role. Nerdery has terminated its lease for 24,000 square feet, two floors of the Van Buren building, and is expected to be out of the space by yearend, said Brittany Hughes, a leasing agent for the property and an associate at Stream Realty Partners.

A Nerdery executive wouldn’t go that far but said plans in Chicago have changed. Laura Etches, vice president of marketing, said Nerdery is evaluating what to do with its Chicago space. She said only 11 employees are working in the Chicago area, a far cry from the roughly 60 reportedly assigned here a few years ago.

“We are evaluating all the options we have,” Etches said. She said COVID-19 has affected operations dramatically. “The way people work and the way clients work with partners has evolved,” she said.

Etches said the company, based in Edina, Minnesota, has 190 employees. It also has an office in Phoenix.

“We continue to be a strong player in the marketplace and continue to grow,” she said, emphasizing a desire to still hire “the best nerds.” She declined to discuss Nerdery’s financial performance. The company has reported working with clients such as Verizon. Google and the Mayo Clinic.

When Nerdery first leased the Van Buren space, an executive told Crain’s Chicago Business the company expected to nearly triple the number of Chicago employees to 150 within a couple of years.

But COVID-19, as it did with many office users, knocked plans askew. Observers said Nerdery’s space became hardly used.

Hughes said she is marketing Nerdery’s space to other tenants. She said the seven-story building is about 70% vacant.

Lexington Realty International owns the brick-and-timber building. The portfolio posted on its website shows the building is its only holding in Chicago.

The property is an example of the struggle many older buildings face as tenants adjust their office needs. Experts say vacancies in the downtown area will remain high, with some tenants offering space on subleases. They say most tenants in the hunt for office space favor new buildings.

During a cutback in 2019, Nerdery closed an office in Kansas City, Missouri.

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