Remote work is here to stay — at least two days a week, top mayoral aide says

World Business Chicago CEO Michael Fassnacht said the stay-at-home shutdown that forced many employees to work from home has created an appetite for remote work that will survive COVID-19 and all of its variants.

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Chicago skyline.

Workers are returning the downtown Chicago, but the nature of the office — and how much time people still spend in theirs — has been altered by the pandemic, World Business Chicago CEO Michael Fassnacht says.

Sun-Times file

The traditional workweek that drew 600,000 employees to Chicago’s commercial office buildings Monday through Friday before the pandemic will be replaced by a “three-and-two hybrid” with two days of remote work, a top mayoral aide predicted Wednesday.

Michael Fassnacht, newly-appointed CEO of the public-private job growth agency known as World Business Chicago, said the stay-at-home shutdown that forced employees to work from home — if they could — has created an appetite for remote work that will survive COVID-19 and all its variants.

“Long term, I believe the majority of workers will be back. But clearly, it’s a much more hybrid world. I expect that most companies will go to a three-and-two [schedule]. So you’d be required to be three days working in the office and two days working either from home or traveling,” Fassnacht said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Sun-Times, Fassnacht said there are “three key sources of traffic” to the downtown core: the everyday workforce, which will “change long term, but not to the extent a lot of people are predicting;” conventioneers; and tourists, both those driving from surrounding suburbs as well as others traveling from the East and West coasts.

“We have to have a much bigger share of leisure tourists than in the past,” he said.

Fassnacht noted 18 months into the pandemic, 30% to 40% of the downtown workforce has returned to the Central Business District at least three days a week.

“That’s not just a Chicago challenge. Every single city is facing this. … We cannot just go back to the pre-pandemic times. ... We have to adapt. If there are fewer people longer term coming to work, how can we keep the city attractive? How can we make sure that people come on the weekends, during the week to Chicago — not just for work?” he said.

A quiet downtown Chicago in March 2020, during the second week of a stay-home order near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

A quiet downtown Chicago in March 2020, during the second week of a stay-home order near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

How Chicago answers that question will go a long way toward determining whether the city’s downtown core can survive a permanent change in commuting patterns.

Fassnacht believes the answer lies in “re-inventing attractions” and filling empty commercial space along Michigan Avenue and State Street with “experiential retail.”

“Look at Starbuck’s Reserve. The Starbuck’s Reserve store on the Mag Mile is not just a coffee shop. That is experiential retail. You have people driving an hour to visit and spend money. The store is doing extremely well. You need other places like that where people say, ‘This is a destination I want to experience,’” Fassnacht told the Sun-Times.

Target took a close look at the giant hole at Water Tower Place created by Macy’s exodus, only to take a pass — to the relief of Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, a Mag Mile resident who considered the discount retailer not nearly highbrow enough for Chicago’s marquee shopping district.

Fassnacht refused to discuss current negotiations with Brookfield Properties, owners of Water Tower Place. He would only say that Macy’s replacement must be a “destination for people living close by, people living in the suburbs and people coming from London.”

“We have to re-frame these spaces. It’s always like, `What’s the next Macy’s moving in?’ That’s the wrong framing. The framing has to be: What is the development-attracting destinations for all of us and for people who come for conventions who will go there?”

Macy’s is in its final weeks of operations at Water Tower Place.

The departure of Macy’s from Water Tower Place has left a big retail hole but also created a chance to “re-frame” that retail space, said Michael Fassnacht of World Business Chicago.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

A few years ago, downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) blocked Dave & Buster’s from moving into Water Tower Place at the behest of local residents who feared violent groups of young people would be drawn to the gaming arcade during warm weather months.

Fassnacht was asked whether he now was thinking of a similar retailer or an entertainment venue that includes live music.

“All of the above. We have to look at everything. Ultimately, the owners of these stores will make these decisions. But we have to be creative. We have to be innovative. My key filter is, it has to be attractive and relevant. That’s what we are looking for,” he said.

“There’s a lot of interest….I will not publicly say what will happen,” he added. “I’m optimistic that the Mag Mile will be different. But it will still be a special place for people to go.”

Fassnacht called Friday’s return of Chicago’s mask mandate, triggered by a surge in cases tied to the Delta variant, a “temporary setback” that may cost Chicago’s rebounding convention and tourism industry “six to eight weeks.”

Even so, he has not altered the prediction he made to Chicago aldermen last month: That strong bookings at McCormick Place and Navy Pier mean both venues “should be back to pre-COVID numbers by the end of the year.”

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