Chicago’s new normal: How reopened workplaces will look different due to the coronavirus pandemic

Working from home will remain a factor, but those venturing back to the office in the coming months should expect see a host of new workplace protocols.

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An office conference room displays a sign limiting occupancy to two people. It’s an example of suggestions the design firm Gensler is providing to clients.

An office conference room displays a sign limiting occupancy to two people. It’s an example of suggestions the design firm Gensler is providing to clients.

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It’s hard these days to even look at an elevator button the way we used to. Now, we shudder — people touch those things!

Not many are eager to get back to riding a packed Blue Line L train to work or even sharing a crowded sidewalk downtown. Standing in line at a food hall on your lunch break no longer is an appetizing prospect. Nor is sharing the office kitchen.

For years, the emphasis in office design has been to reduce the amount of space per employee. The coronavirus pandemic has given that trend a sharp elbow in the ribs, worse than an office seatmate with no sense of personal space.

As Chicago and the rest of the nation move toward slowly reopening the economy, one key question is: What will our workplaces and work routines look like in the wake of COVID-19?

For many — the front-line workers who have borne the brunt of risk and hardship during the pandemic — little will change. Then, there’s the rest of us, those fortunate enough to be able to work and shelter in place, whose change in habits has given a thriving, energetic business core an apocalyptic look.

Nelson Algren’s “City on the Make” has morphed into the City in a Mask — and in a daze. How quickly we snap out of all of this will depend on the progress made in fighting the pandemic and in finding and delivering a vaccine.

One thing that seems certain: The work-from-home phenomenon, now so popular that “WFH” is part of our messaging shorthand, will endure, experts on workplace trends say.

“I wish I knew what a recovery will look like, but I don’t think anybody really does,” said Chicago architect James Goettsch, chairman of Goettsch Partners. “If we start to see spikes in infections later this year, it will make people more conservative. It will be a slow recovery regardless. We’re still kind of all in shock.”

That might be the first thing to expect — that an economy that collapsed in the span of days will take a long time to bounce back. The Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget Office, pillars of caution, say an economic recovery might not come until well into next year. Many economists are more pessimistic.

What else is ahead? When people get back to the office, they’re going to notice changes, mostly those that are easiest to make. Masks could be required gear, made available to those who lack them. Deep-cleaning crews will be purposely visible. And there will be signs and floor markers attesting to the need for social distancing. Fussier places might designate one-way pathways.

Sheryl Schulze, a principal in the architecture and design firm Gensler, said companies are taking some chairs out of conference rooms and thinning out workstations, perhaps removing every other chair.

There is less clarity over temperature checks. Do you do it for everybody or just for visitors? Who is responsible — the tenant or the landlord — especially if something goes wrong?

Then, there are the dreaded elevators. For buildings that can afford it, some are trying a “destination dispatch” system that summons one whenever you scan your way in, perhaps using your smartphone. The elevator knows your floor and takes you there, no buttons needed. Some buildings might enforce a limit of four or even two people to an elevator.

Workers demonstrate a no-touch “destination dispatch” system that Sterling Bay has installed in the office building at 333 N. Green St. in the West Loop.

Workers demonstrate a no-touch “destination dispatch” system that Sterling Bay has installed in the office building at 333 N. Green St. in the West Loop.

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Schulze is all too familiar with the potential downside.

“You don’t want your lobbies to look like the TSA lines at the airport” in prepandemic normalcy, she said.

The phased-in nature of the return to work will help, according to Schulze.

Many predict that staggered starting times will become common.

Less apparent to some, especially in the newest offices, will be ventilation systems that draw in more fresh air and provide greater filtration, said Patrick Biesty, vice president of engineering for development firm Sterling Bay.

Goettsch also made that point and foresees the day when buildings’ air-quality data will be displayed on monitors alongside the headline news.

Biesty said Sterling Bay installed state-of-the-art ventilation systems at several properties, including the Midwest headquarters it built for shipper C.H. Robinson at 1515 W. Webster Ave.

“I don’t think indoor air quality is going away as a concern anytime soon because it’s tied in to productivity,” he said.

A larger issue is how many people will be there when offices start reopening.

“Most clients are not ready to come back yet,” Schulze said.

Google and Facebook have advised their employees to work from home if possible through the end of the year. Other employers have said they’ll look at things after Labor Day. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive officer, said he foresees half of his company working from home permanently within a decade, a repudiation of the shared-office ethic.

Gensler did a survey of 2,300 U.S. workers that found only 12% of them want to work from home full-time. The survey found that people value in-person interactions with colleagues but are hoping their employers adopt stricter policies against people coming in when they are sick.

Others have found that work-from-home will remain a part of office culture. The Chicago consulting firm Grossman Group, surveying 841 workers across the nation, found that 48% want to continue working from home in some fashion.

“A great deal has changed in employees’ work lives in a short time, and if we want them to be engaged and productive, we’re going to have to be willing to meet them where they are as much as possible,” said David Grossman, the consulting firm’s chief executive officer.

He said that while some like working from home, others can’t wait to get back.

A lot of that has to do with your own circumstances. Do you have toddlers melting down during your Zoom meetings?

Paul Lundstedt, vice chair of Cushman & Wakefield, said the real estate firm plans to reopen in 25% stages, allowing people to work from home if they are uncomfortable coming in.

“A lot of people are very antsy about getting back, especially people with families,” Lundstedt said.

John Goodman, vice chairman of the office tenant brokerage Savills, said he sees about 30% of workers staying mostly at home. Others put the figure at around 50%.

“For many, the work-from-home experiment has worked fine,” Goodman said. “A lot will say they haven’t lost much productivity. But senior leadership often has other concerns.”

Goodman said executives are worried about innovation falling victim to a lack of in-person collaboration.

What isn’t going to be happening, real estate experts said, is a wholesale reworking of office layouts, though some brokerages and consultancies have promoted designs to emphasize less crowding in the office. Cushman & Wakefield has developed concepts under the banner of “Six Feet Office” for respecting social distances.

Most companies are skipping that for now.

“They are staying flexible on working from home,” Goodman said. “They think this will be solved by [workplace] policy as opposed to spending a lot of capital on reworking the space.”

Reducing office crowding also flies in the face of trends in place for the last 30 years. Goettsch noted that offices used to provide about 250 square feet for each person. That’s been scaled down to about 110 square feet in layouts for cost-conscious tenants. Private offices became cubicles which became benches in some cases.

“Do we need to get out of the trading-desk kind of environment that the tech world gave us?” Goodman said.

What does that do then to commercial real estate? Does demand increase because tenants are spreading out? Or do they contract because of working from home?

“That’s the gazillion-dollar question,” Lundstedt said.

Experts foresee a gradual decline in demand. Coupled with new space due to hit the market in the West Loop and Fulton Market, the demand trend should cause vacancies to rise in the coming years.

Construction crews work on a new office building at 110 N. Wacker Dr. Experts say new construction, coupled with a decline in demand from some tenants, will create a glut of office space downtown.

Construction crews work on a new office building at 110 N. Wacker Dr. Experts say new construction, coupled with a decline in demand from some tenants, will create a glut of office space downtown.

Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

There also could be more interest in suburban office sites, even as satellite locations, for workers who don’t want to visit a crowded downtown hub all the time. Suburban sites have free parking, a rare amenity in the city.

But people still have to get to their jobs and confront their doubts about public transportation.

“Can you imagine what the highway infrastructure is going to look like? It’s going to be scary,” Lundstedt said.

Erin Aleman, executive director of the publicly funded Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, has a perspective on the situation as a policy analyst and as a tenant. Her agency is relocating its downtown offices into the Old Post Office in the West Loop. But she said it has no plans to redo the layout yet for COVID-19 concerns. Work at home will be prominent, but Aleman said the region still needs to find a way to get people back on public transit.

The region is interconnected and will still be post-pandemic, she said. CMAP data show more than half of metro-area workers cross county lines in their commutes, a proportion that might astound confirmed city-dwellers who never get beyond Harlem Avenue.

Aleman said the coronavirus will force policymakers to address issues tied to shared prosperity, such as segregation and income inequality, overdue repairs of roads and bridges, affordable housing and broadband access across all communities. It’s a lengthy agenda and a heavy ask for government funding partners sure to face extreme pressures of their own.

But Aleman is optimistic.

“I think it’s a generational opportunity to really come out of this stronger on the other side,” she said.

Using a once-in-a-century infection as a means for improvement is a bold thought. Are we still up to the task of, to tweak the words of Chicago visionary Daniel Burnham, making no little plans?

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