Willard Says...

March 16, 2022

For the Love of All That is Holy, Please Stop Predicting the Future of the Office

By Amanda Friedlander

I’m really tired of reading the same articles over and over again. Every week, there’s a new “think piece” about the so-called future of the office. Every word-count-hungry Hemingway with a blog seems to be milking the city’s anxieties for all they’re worth – which, as it turns out, is about the price of a Crain’s subscription. In the pursuit of answering the unanswerable questions of what the future holds for commercial real estate professionals and their clients, hundreds of outlets have tried and failed to provide meaningful insight that extends beyond some variation of “people want their dogs with them, and they don’t want to sit two feet from Cathy in HR with the sinus infection.” Rather than combing through any more of this doom-scroll bait, we can save you some time by summarizing the reality of the CRE state of affairs: 

No one has any clue what’s going to happen or when. We’ll adapt anyway.

The concept of adapting a workplace structure to adhere to employee needs is not new. During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, office managers set out masks and sanitizing stations and implemented open-air concepts wherever possible. New buildings were heavily modernized and redesigned to increase ventilation and encourage social distancing. Despite an even more severe economic downturn than 2020 and even more drastic unemployment rates, the economy recovered and sparked widespread innovation and job creation. The truth is that we already know how CRE professionals can improve leasing activity – it just takes time, money, and creativity, which is in short supply for building owners who fear change. Time and again, we find that early adopters who invest in the future of their own products end up far better off than those who prefer to “wait it out” in hopes that someone will be desperate enough to take the deal.

As for timing, we should know by now to ignore predictions of “the Big Return,” which has been repeatedly pushed back due to the inception and spread of different COVID variants. Each company will determine for itself what the best course of action is. Working from home may benefit many people, but it’s counterproductive to assume that this will become “the new normal.” Yes, many businesses have realized that most of their employees can perform their jobs outside of the office. It’s not a question of how work can continue with people working from home, nor is it a question of what will entice those people back into the office. The question that employers should be asking is: “how can I innovate my company in such a way that utilizes my office as more than just a surveilled holding pen for my employees’ bodies?” 

Employees have always craved flexibility and comfortable amenities. The COVID pandemic didn’t make them more demanding – it only gave them more leverage to refuse to accept current standards for the typical workplace. The mid-1900s had employees focused on self-determination, encouraged to work independently except for the rare team meeting. Later, the “open plan” workspace fell into favor, still consisting of rows and rows of desks, but adding warm elements and cork ceilings to limit noise pollution and increase productivity. As women began entering the workplace, modular furniture and semi-flexible workstations met the increased need for privacy and “modesty.” That desire for privacy increased until cubicle farms were the norm, standing several feet high and surrounding employees on nearly all sides. Finally, the early aughts saw a complete rejection of privacy, encouraging creative layouts and breakout spaces rather than confining employees to their 5 or 10 square feet of space. The only difference between these gradual shifts in standards and post-Covid workplace standards is that the proliferation of technology makes it difficult to compete with employees’ homes. If workers can still make money and keep their jobs without leaving the house, why wouldn’t they?

Employees who want to work from home most or all of the time are not going to change their minds. Employees who want to come back to the office probably have already done so, or are planning to do so in the near future. No amount of koi ponds or rooftop dog parks are going to convince people to give up rolling out of bed at 9am, dusting the Dorito crumbs off their sweatpants, and answering emails from their $400 gaming chair. Instead of concerning themselves with enticement and amenities, employers should take a utilitarian approach to regenerating interest in the concept of an in-office workday. Collaboration spaces and private offices alike should be designed to challenge and inspire employees, not just appear aesthetically pleasing. If employees aren’t utilizing the company ping-pong table, get rid of it and consider what kind of installations would actually benefit the company. 

Perhaps it’s as simple as leasing an office with a medical tenant on another floor so that employees have quick access to primary care, or offering subsidies for employees who take advantage of the gym just around the corner. Maybe it’s the responsibility of the company owner to identify new ways to monetize their services that require the physical presence of team members, such as hosting focus groups or product testing and demonstrations. Maybe it requires revisiting company communication strategies to identify whether there is a genuine need to eliminate Zoom calls in favor of face-to-face meetings. Perhaps it’s time to revisit the concept of the 9-5 schedule, and instead implement a 24-hour access system that allows employees to choose the hours they’d like to come in, in case they’re more productive as night owls than early birds. Maybe it’s a matter of leasing smaller, more department-oriented spaces in multiple convenient locations around the city, so commutes are shortened significantly and the company footprint remains more or less the same. Or maybe, with the exception of special circumstances, companies could pay higher salaries to in-person employees. Regardless of the solution, we need to stop waiting on “the Big Return.” It’s already happening right now – and it’s more like “The Slow, Reluctant Trickle.” 

All of this is to say that it is counterproductive and borderline useless to constantly monitor the latest news about how and when the city will recover from Covid. Chicago is as Chicago does; through resilience, innovation, creativity, and the willingness to invest in ourselves, the CRE industry will recover at its own pace in due time. Instead of hyper-fixating on some vague, hazy conception of the future dreamed up by those with a significant stake in manipulating the public image of the market, focus instead on the present needs and goals of your business. And for the love of God, stop publishing your predictions.