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Companies are calling workers back to offices, again. But it might not be for five days a week anytime soon.

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 3/27/2022 Sarah Freishtat, Chicago Tribune
A person shows his documents to a staff member at the Old Post Office as employees arrive for work on March 21, 2022. © Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS A person shows his documents to a staff member at the Old Post Office as employees arrive for work on March 21, 2022.

Many companies are again calling employees back to the office, after two years that saw staff return in fits and starts as COVID-19 surged and relented.

But the ways office workers are returning have changed. Many are required to spend fewer days in the office, and that trend might be here to stay.

Tractor-maker John Deere, which recently announced a new, 35,000-square-foot office space at trendy Fulton Market, has moved to fully remote or hybrid work for the long term. Employees are encouraged to be on-site one or two days a week, or one week a month, but managers and employees ultimately determine what the flexible schedule looks like. The new Chicago office space is seen as “a collaborative office space to convene, connect and innovate,” spokeswoman Jen Hartmann said in an email.

Employees arrive for work at the Old Post Office in Chicago on March 21, 2022. © Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS Employees arrive for work at the Old Post Office in Chicago on March 21, 2022.

At JPMorgan Chase, some employees are in the office five days a week. Others work on a hybrid schedule, depending on their role, spokesman Brian Hanover said. The banking giant owns and occupies much of the 60-story Chase Tower downtown.

How employees return to the office, and how often they’re there, could affect the future of downtown Chicago. Fewer office workers is one of several changes that could reshape the face of downtown as the city tries to emerge from the pandemic.

People take advantage of the food and dining area at the Jackson Boulevard entrance to Willis Tower March 15, 2022. © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS People take advantage of the food and dining area at the Jackson Boulevard entrance to Willis Tower March 15, 2022.

Companies are also recognizing increasing demand from employees to work from home, which has provided safety and convenience for office workers for much of the pandemic.

One head count of people returning to offices showed Chicago occupancy was at nearly 35% of pre-pandemic levels during the second week in March, after dipping during the surge of the omicron variant earlier in the year, according to an analysis by security company Kastle of its own building entry data.

A separate survey of 68 Chicago executives taken in December found most thought employees would return to the office by the end of March. The largest share — about 43% — thought employees would return three days a week, according to the survey, conducted by a business group aiming to drive the return of downtown.

A return to the office might be more feasible now, said Derrick Johnson, president of the board of downtown building association BOMA/Chicago. The end of Chicago’s mask mandate seems to have made some people feel more comfortable in office settings. Some of the logistical concerns that prevented a return to work earlier in the pandemic, like how to care for children who had not yet returned to school, have been resolved, he said.

People pass through the Wacker Drive lobby at Willis Tower in Chicago on March 15, 2022. The building's occupancy rose by about 45% between the first week in February and the first week in March. © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS People pass through the Wacker Drive lobby at Willis Tower in Chicago on March 15, 2022. The building's occupancy rose by about 45% between the first week in February and the first week in March.

“We’ve hit a point where everyone that wanted to get the shot and get boosted has done so,” he said. “We kind of understand what COVID means to our life, where for a lot of this period, we didn’t really understand.”

Johnson is a senior vice president at real estate developer Zeller, where most corporate employees have been back in the office four days a week for months, he said.

He thinks companies will eventually bring people back to the office five days a week. Employees benefit from being around others who don’t think like them, and young workers benefit from mentorship, he said.

But Steven Davis, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business who is studying working from home, said hybrid schedules for office workers aren’t likely to change anytime soon.

Two years of practice, improved technology and increasing demand from employees to work from home has made the concept more palatable for employers, he said. And an ongoing survey conducted by Davis and researchers at other universities shows employers are increasingly warming up to the idea of employees working from home part of the time.

Staff, employees and guests arrive at the Old Post Office in Chicago March 21, 2022. Many companies are again calling employees back to the office, but the way employees are returning has changed and many are required to spend fewer days there. © Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS Staff, employees and guests arrive at the Old Post Office in Chicago March 21, 2022. Many companies are again calling employees back to the office, but the way employees are returning has changed and many are required to spend fewer days there.

Video: Survey: 50% of companies want workers back in the office full time (Yahoo! Finance)

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Employers are faced with three choices when it comes to working from home, he said: allow remote work, pay employees higher salaries to compensate for not offering remote work, or accept that they might lose current and future employees if they don’t offer remote work as an option.

Most will likely make remote work feasible, Davis said. The key is to divide up workdays so that employees are in the office on days they are doing tasks that will benefit from proximity to their co-workers.

That division might make managers’ jobs more difficult, but will benefit employees who can save time on getting ready and commuting, he said.

“Before COVID, for most workers, working remotely for much of the week was not really an option, and that meant employers did not really need to respond to it,” he said. “Because their employees who wanted that option didn’t really have a way to make it happen. Now, they do have a way to make it happen.”

One company that has embraced a hybrid schedule is Molson Coors, where employees are in the office at least Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Company executives think employees work best together, and beer is a social industry, spokesman Marty Maloney said. But the company also wanted to provide flexibility, and recognized the world has changed.

As long as the schedule keeps working the company has no plans change it, though it could adjust if future developments with the pandemic call for it, Maloney said.

Engineering firm ESD brought its roughly 230 Chicago employees back to the office part time at the beginning of March, after several changes to planned start dates, Executive Chairman Raj Gupta said. For now, in consideration of health concerns, employees are divided into two groups, who each come in two days a week.

In six months, if nothing changes, Gupta plans to move to a hybrid schedule where most employees can choose three days a week to come in — with the expectation that if a big deadline is coming up or a client or co-workers have urgent needs, an employee will come in.

The decision reflects a recognition that employees might have family or other commitments, Gupta said. The company also already had allowed remote work for employees who lived elsewhere in the country or had specific family needs. It can make a hybrid schedule work because it is a service company.

“I’m very comfortable with it,” he said. “And we really had no choice. And if we didn’t have that two-year period to work out the kinks and everything, it probably would be a little disconcerting to automatically go to three days a week for the whole company, but since we’ve been working for two years remotely anyway, I’m much more comfortable with it,” he said.

The company moved onto Floors 53 and 54 of Willis Tower in 2018, shortly after redevelopment work began at the tower. Even with the hybrid schedule, the office space is worth it to Gupta, because collaboration and development of younger employees is key to the design firm. The building and the company’s unique office setup could also help recruit new hires.

Now that employees aren’t in the office every day, the company could take some of its existing space and reconfigure it, he said.

ESD isn’t the only company that recently returned at Willis. Average daily occupancy at the tower shot up by about 45% between the first week of February and the first week of March, a spokesman said. Traffic in the building’s new food court and retail space followed similar trends.

A few blocks south, the Old Post Office welcomed its first tenants months before the pandemic sent office workers home in March 2020. Two years later, on a Wednesday in mid-March, 1,600 workers swiped into the building, which is expected to house around 10,000 employees when fully occupied, said Bryan Oyster, the building’s general manager.

About a week and a half before, between 750 and 1,000 workers swiped in.

Uber Technologies, one of the building’s large tenants, opened its office in the fall for employees who chose to come in. The company sought to sublease some of its space before the pandemic shutdowns, and later put its construction on hold because of the virus.

It plans in the coming months to have employees working there half the time, said Rachel Perl, Uber’s head of U.S. North regulatory strategy and operations, in a statement.

The Old Post Office is 97% leased, but not all tenants have moved in, according to the leasing agent, the Telos Group. Much of the leasing took place during the pandemic, and tenants designed their spaces with the intent to have employees back a few days a week, Matt Whipple, one of the leasing agents, said.

For those who have moved in, the building is trying to match companies’ efforts to encourage employees to come in a few days a week, Oyster said. That can mean moving a scheduled building happy hour from a Friday to a Wednesday, when more tenants are in the building.

As it adjusts, the Old Post Office is getting ready for an influx of workers for the first time.

“Now is the first time we’re actually going to see everyone start to come in at the same time,” Oyster said.

sfreishtat@chicagotribune.com

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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