The return to the workplace is re-shaping the workspace

Amenities and incentives abound as execs look to lure employees back to the office

(iStock illustration by The Real Deal)
(iStock illustration by The Real Deal)

As more Americans get vaccinated, the return-to-office movement is gathering steam. Companies that a month ago were merely speculating about recalling workers are now setting firm deadlines.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon told staff to start reporting to the office part-time by July, a move widely interpreted as a signal to other Wall Street firms that the end of working from home full-time is nigh.

“By early July, all U.S.-based employees will be in the office on a consistent rotational schedule,” Dimon wrote in an internal April 27 memo obtained by Bloomberg.

Investment giant Blackstone Group upped the ante two weeks later, asking its U.S. employees to return to the office full-time on June 7, according to Business Insider.

A nationwide survey of money managers by investment consulting firm Callan found that most plan to return to the office by August, but many firms in the Northeast are ahead of the curve. More than 20 percent are already at least partially open, up from 12 percent last August.

Firms headquartered in Europe — which is struggling with a surge of Covid-19 cases and troubling new variants — are less eager to get back. Deutsche Bank has proposed a permanent hybrid arrangement, allowing staff to work from home up to three days a week, CFO James von Moltke told Bloomberg.

U.S. law firms are particularly keen to call their legal eagles back to the nest — and many resisted the work-from-home model from the start. Nationwide, law firms currently have a 40 percent occupancy rate, about 15 percent higher than the cross-industry average, according to Kastle Systems, an office security company that monitors swipe-in data at office buildings.

Many tech firms were quick to embrace remote working early in the pandemic — with Facebook being one of the first major companies to send all employees home last year. But now, the social network is calling them back starting July 2, with plans to order all workers back to their desks once their offices reach 50 percent occupancy. The firm expects to reach that tipping point at its largest offices in mid-September.

On May 5, Google announced that it plans to allow about 20 percent of its staff to continue working from home permanently, and let another 20 percent move to new offices, while allowing office-bound employees to work remotely two days a week.

More than half of tech firms said they expect to be back in the office by the third quarter of this year, according to Savills. Just under 25 percent said they would be back by the fourth quarter, while 11 percent said they wouldn’t return until the first quarter of 2022.

Overall, executives are more eager to get back to the office than their subordinates. Seventy-five percent of executives expect to have at least half of their employees back in the office by July, according to a survey of U.S. companies by PwC, while only 61 percent of employees expect to be spending half of their time in the office by then.

CoStar, a commercial real estate information provider, is even offering game-show prizes to lure workers back to their desks.

The company is giving away private-jet trips to Barbados, $10,000 in cash and a new Tesla in a lottery open only to employees who are vaccinated and physically present in their office, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Though a University of Chicago study predicts that continued remote work could actually boost post-pandemic productivity by 5 percent, the end of working from home can’t come soon enough for Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, who just told all U.S. employees to be ready to return to their desks by June 14.

“This is not ideal for us, and it’s not a new normal,” Solomon told a Credit Suisse conference in February. “It’s an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.”

Amenity wars

Office landlords realize that, after a year of remote work, they’re not just competing with their peers now, but with living rooms and comfy slippers.

Multiple surveys have shown that the vast majority of office workers who have been working remotely do not want to go back to the office full-time, even after the pandemic. In fact, a recent study by staffing firm Robert Half found that more than one-third would look for a new job if their current company required them to return to the office full-time.

In response, landlords are making changes, from safety measures like antiviral HVAC systems to amenities like yoga studios and golf simulators, to entice workers to return.

Fisher Brothers has installed UV lights and hydrogen peroxide gas systems to filter air conditioning at several of its buildings, as well as technology to allow workers to call elevators remotely. The firm is also rolling out a catering service at 1345 Sixth Avenue with an app that lets workers order food directly to their desks.

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“We’re constantly looking for ways to add amenities,” co-managing partner Ken Fisher told NBC News.

Technology upgrades to make workplaces safer from pathogens are a key aspect of post-pandemic office modifications.

“There are thermal scanners in the lobby to take your temperature, hand scanners for touchless entry into buildings,” CBRE’s Ryan Alexander told USA Today. “If you’re visiting a client or a company, they send you a guest barcode to your phone that you just scan.”

JLL is even offering AI-driven monitoring to identify high-traffic areas that may need additional cleaning, according to NBC.

But safety isn’t the only amenity landlords are offering in order to coax workers back.

Silverstein Properties has remodeled its buildings to include lounges, restaurants, yoga studios and outdoor patios. TIAA subsidiary Nuveen Real Estate is installing golf simulators and sponsoring events like gatherings for wine in the park, Nuveen’s Nadir Settles told NBC.

More than 70 percent of large financial firms surveyed by Callan reported making some physical changes to their workspaces in anticipation of workers’ imminent return, and the hybrid work model is leading many firms to consider a more radical reshaping of the traditional office plan.

But rethinking their offices is less about reducing the amount of square feet than it is about reducing the number of desks, according to Google CFO Ruth Porat.

‌“We are looking at less density per employee,” Porat said on an April 27 earnings call. “Even with a hybrid work environment, we will continue to need [office] space, and so we’re continuing to build out our campuses and office facilities.”

Wireless networks and flexible, unassigned seating will replace tightly grouped rows of personal workstations in the post-pandemic office, designers say. The priority will shift from packing workers into a space toward getting as many possible uses out of it.

JPMorgan is aiming for a “universal design” for the 2.5 million-square-foot headquarters it’s building at 270 Park Avenue, according to a request for proposals reported by Business Insider. The goal is to create an adaptable space that can cater to a workforce that will see the office mainly as a place to gather for group work, meetings or tasks requiring specialized resources or infrastructure.

And JPMorgan isn’t the only big office tenant looking for a more flexible workplace design. IBM is also shopping for 300,000 square feet of “agile” Manhattan office space, according to Business Insider.

Google is making its offices even more fluid, swapping rows of desks for DIY “Team Pods” — collections of desks, chairs, cabinets and other office fixtures, all on wheels, that workers can arrange into various configurations as needed, according to the New York Times. The firm is also creating outdoor work areas at some of its offices, as well as circular meeting spaces with seats and screens arranged to make remote colleagues seem more present.

The most radical adaptation Google is testing is a fleet of robots that can be summoned to spread out shimmering, inflatable walls to give an open-plan desk a semblance of privacy.

While the open plan has been the dominant office layout since the early 2000s, the new model could feel more like a library, according to designers — a place where you drop in, find a good spot, work quietly and then leave.

“If you think about the language of a library, what does that get you?” Elizabeth von Goeler, an interior designer at the architecture firm Sasaki, told tech publication Built In. “It gets you protocols that everybody understands for quiet and focused work.”

The new flexible designs will also include more small-group spaces for collaborative work.

Of course, there’s also a need for designers to accommodate the new reality of widespread remote work, in which even those in the office will spend time video-chatting with people working from home.

“We’re trying to really look at sight lines,” Thomas Vecchione, a principal at the boutique architecture firm Vocon, told Business Insider. “You don’t want to be on a Zoom chat and someone is behind you eating.”