Workers back in the offices? Experts expect permanent change to suburban cubicle culture

  • Jayne Sanné works behind plexiglass barriers installed in the village of Schaumburg's community development department's space at village hall. Barriers around workstations are among the adaptations Schaumburg made to keep village hall operating through the pandemic.

    Jayne Sanné works behind plexiglass barriers installed in the village of Schaumburg's community development department's space at village hall. Barriers around workstations are among the adaptations Schaumburg made to keep village hall operating through the pandemic. Courtesy of village of Schaumburg

  • Zurich North America's 700,000-square-foot headquarters in Schaumburg, where 2,500 of the company's employees worked before March 2020, has been largely empty during the pandemic. The company expects to bring back about 20% of those workers in early June.

    Zurich North America's 700,000-square-foot headquarters in Schaumburg, where 2,500 of the company's employees worked before March 2020, has been largely empty during the pandemic. The company expects to bring back about 20% of those workers in early June. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • The parking structure at Zurich North America's 700,000-square-foot headquarters in Schaumburg has been largely unused since March 2020, but the company says it plans to bring back about 20% of the building's 2,500 workers on or about June 7.

    The parking structure at Zurich North America's 700,000-square-foot headquarters in Schaumburg has been largely unused since March 2020, but the company says it plans to bring back about 20% of the building's 2,500 workers on or about June 7. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • The lobby of Zurich North America's 700,000-square-foot headquarters in Schaumburg has been quiet since the onset of the pandemic, but company officials expect to see activity there early next month, when about 20% of the 2,500 employees based there are expected to return.

    The lobby of Zurich North America's 700,000-square-foot headquarters in Schaumburg has been quiet since the onset of the pandemic, but company officials expect to see activity there early next month, when about 20% of the 2,500 employees based there are expected to return. Courtesy of Zurich North America

  • Schaumburg officials have operated out of village hall at various levels throughout the pandemic. Among the adaptations made to keep employees and visitors safe was the addition of plexiglass barriers around workstations to supplement glass partitions that already were in place.

    Schaumburg officials have operated out of village hall at various levels throughout the pandemic. Among the adaptations made to keep employees and visitors safe was the addition of plexiglass barriers around workstations to supplement glass partitions that already were in place. Courtesy of village of Schaumburg

  • Plexiglass barriers at service counters, signs containing safety guidance and hand sanitizer dispensers have been added at Schaumburg's village hall to keep it open for business during the pandemic.

    Plexiglass barriers at service counters, signs containing safety guidance and hand sanitizer dispensers have been added at Schaumburg's village hall to keep it open for business during the pandemic. Courtesy of village of Schaumburg

 
 
Updated 5/21/2021 11:21 AM

While last week's move to the "Bridge Phase" of reopening in Illinois was a crucial milestone for businesses that rely on customers coming in person, the quandary over when office workers should return to their desks and conference rooms remains for companies across the suburbs.

While the restoration of pre-pandemic capacities is the clear-cut goal of restaurants, hotels, stores and entertainment venues, many companies' office culture will be changed forever, experts say.

 

"I believe it will always affect us," said Angel Douglas Stiemert, business operations manager for the Westmont office of Ryan Companies, a Minneapolis-based real estate development and management firm. "I think this has essentially changed what the American workplace is."

Companies that strongly rely on collaborative decision-making are the most likely to value the continued use of office space, Douglas Stiemert said.

As a general contractor, Ryan Companies has gained experience about adapting to the pandemic both firsthand and through its clients. At Ryan, about 80% of employees went remote at the start of the pandemic, but they are slowly trickling back to the office.

The timing and method of restoring an office presence will be different for every company, Douglas Stiemert said.

"I believe this has introduced a shift in our workplace culture," she said. "I believe (the pandemic) has changed the landscape of the office."

Michael Flynn, principal of the Oak Brook Terrace-based real estate firm NAI Hiffman, said companies will continue to find a variety of adaptations moving forward.

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"I don't think there's going to be a 'post-pandemic'" for the office market, said Flynn, whose company represents owners of vacant spaces looking for tenants and works with tenants who want to do something different.

During the pandemic, NAI Hiffman has retooled offices based on CDC guidance and provided clients with the resources needed for employees to work from home for the first time, such as increased internet capability.

Flynn said that while plexiglass was a popular addition to offices during the first six months of the pandemic, it's less likely to be a part of reopenings yet to come. But a majority of reception areas will likely add some type of screening if there was none before, he said.

While very few have isolated their cubicles or work stations with physical barriers, some companies may discourage use of seldom occupied desks in between to increase separation of workers, Flynn said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

More than half of companies using their office space still require mask use, despite the recent change in guidelines by the CDC. Many are setting landmark dates such as the Fourth of July or Labor Day as a time to revisit their policies, he said.

Flynn doesn't believe lunchrooms and break rooms will cease to be used, but traditions like doughnut day or having bowls of candy sitting out will be given a pause for a while.

NAI Hiffman doesn't believe the pandemic has eliminated the reasons companies valued their office space in the past. In a recent survey of its remote employees, 84% responded that they would prefer to be back in the office three or more days per week, Flynn said.

But he understands the way forward for many companies is more complicated and individualized than the guidance other types of businesses are receiving. While a person can choose to attend a baseball game or wedding at a newly reopened venue, it's a different thing to have one's employer require a return to the office, Flynn said.

One company that's always valued its office space is Zurich North America, whose striking 700,000-square-foot headquarters off Interstate 90 in Schaumburg housed 2,500 employees when the pandemic began.

Though that massive space has been largely unused since March 2020, company officials late last week announced they would bring back 20% of the staff on or about June 7.

Bob Boyle, vice president and head of premium audit at Zurich, said one of the firm's reopening goals is to avoid bringing people back only to see them have to return home again later.

Flexible hours that were part of some employees' jobs will remain, if not increase, added Boyle, who's the North American chair of the Zurich Crisis Management Committee. But the company recognizes the value in people being together, as evidenced by the energy felt during a recent reunion for a vaccination clinic.

Schaumburg village officials have said their local economy -- the second largest in Illinois -- is quite dependent on the return of the daytime population of office workers. Boyle said Zurich North America intends to again contribute to that population and is excited by the redevelopment taking place around its office near the former Motorola Solutions campus.

As Zurich is a prominent presence locally, as well as in the risk-management industry, Boyle said he wouldn't be surprised if other office users take their cue from its example.

"We don't have any expectation that we won't be back to what we were prior," he said.

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