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Employers balance a tricky equation as they decide when to bring workers back to the office

As coronavirus cases surge across the U.S. again, employers are considering how and when to bring employees back to the office.

Many Center City high rises have been empty during the pandemic. Employers are studying ways to get workers back together in one spot.
Many Center City high rises have been empty during the pandemic. Employers are studying ways to get workers back together in one spot.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Thousands of employers initially thought of working from home during the lockdown as a temporary measure. Maybe a month — two, tops — and people would be back in the office by late spring.

In the thick of summer, many offices remain empty.

But as cases have begun to stabilize in some areas, testing has increased, and hospitals have gained more experience and resources to treat sick patients, some employers are tentatively planning to bring workers back by fall, and some are finding creative ways to rearrange them.

A few others, however, are asking: Do employees even need to come back to the office? If so, does it need to be in 2020? And actually, do we even really need so much office space?

“A lot of my clients have come and said they’re going to downsize their office space,” said Jason Kramer, senior vice president and a partner at Binswanger, a commercial real estate firm based in Philadelphia. “The one thing for sure — this is going to change the way that people view office space, period, for people who are going to be downsizing. You may see a shift to more private spaces, but I think it’s going to depend on the industry. The lawyers and the accountants might think differently from the techs and creatives.”

The equation is not as simple as it seems, said the commercial real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle, noting that an increase in remote work does not automatically mean a decreased demand for offices. Complicating factors range from the state of the coronavirus outbreak and government response to it, to technology and company culture.

» READ MORE: Going back to the office? What public health experts say about using the elevator.

“From an employee perspective, the office provides a place for face-to-face interactions that technology struggles to replicate, such as social interaction, face-to-face collaboration, mentoring and managing,” the firm said in a report published in late June. “Even after the recent success of working from home, employees still state they would like to be in the office for the majority of the week.”

Twitter, historically receptive to a work-from-home model, has said its employees can permanently work remotely if they choose. Facebook, Google, and the New York Times said that many of their employees can work from home until 2021.

In the Philadelphia region, Bryn Mawr Trust has decided that about 40% of its 635 employees will permanently work from home. The financial company plans to sell its building on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr and end two leases at its other offices on the same street, said Tina McDonald, the company’s director of marketing and communications.

Next month, she said, the company will end another lease at its location in Chadds Ford. It is also looking for someone to buy its building at 22 W. State St. in Media, then lease it — a deal referred to as a sale-leaseback transaction.

Bryn Mawr Trust had been considering the work-from-home model before the pandemic, McDonald said, but the outbreak cemented the decision. “More companies have to be more forward-thinking,” she said.

Other companies have sought more space to spread out their employees.

» READ MORE: Philly is reopening but office workers are staying home. That means peril for lunch spots and stores.

EwingCole, a Center City-based architecture firm with offices throughout the country, is stationing more than a quarter of its Philadelphia staff in suburban Chester County for at least a year as part of its strategy to get its workers back in the office after months of mostly working remotely.

EwingCole plans to sublease 30,000 square feet.

The firm’s leadership decided on the move because the 70,000-square-foot office it occupies at the Federal Reserve Bank building at Sixth and Arch Streets, which the firm designed in the 1970s, was too small to adhere to social-distancing guidelines for the roughly 280 employees who had worked there.

Some workers who had depended on public transportation to reach the Center City office, where parking is scarce, were also fearful of being exposed to the virus on trains and buses.

The company never considered leaving Center City, where it has deep roots. The office’s downtown location helps it recruit graduates from surrounding architecture programs who want to remain in an urban environment, EwingCole president Bob McConnell said.

» READ MORE: Vanguard transfers 1,300 staffers to outsourcing partner Infosys, which will open a Malvern center

At the same time, the collaborative nature of EwingCole’s work made it hard to continue having staff work from home full time, so that wasn’t seen as a viable option, either.

“Those casual interactions as an architect or an engineer, where you can exchange ideas in person, or on the fly, is critical to how we work,” McConnell said.

EwingCole worked with Hether Smith of commercial brokerage Savills to find a furnished office that could be leased on a short-term basis.

About 200 employees will continue to report to the firm’s Center City office, with the remaining 80 working out of the suburban space, although many will likely continue working from home a few days a week to further reduce density.

“Nobody knows what tomorrow is going to bring, and where we’re going to be six months from now or a year from now,” McConnell said. “We just thought this gave us some flexibility.”

Though some companies have requested to downsize, or otherwise permitted employees to always work from home, “there’s such a value of having people in the office,” said Binswanger’s Kramer.

“While I am productive remotely,” he said, “I do miss working aside my coworkers and the water cooler talk.”

» READ MORE: The open office floor plan has to change — at least during the coronavirus pandemic

Employers have to remain vigilant about protecting their workers by laying out detailed safety plans, Kramer said, and “taking proactive measures. Companies are really going to have a pretty good job of being strict about this.”

Employer plans for creating a safer workplace include installing safety barriers, new air ventilation systems, and no-touch buttons and handles, as well as handing out personal protection equipment and taking employees’ temperature before they come inside.

Such measures would prove essential, particularly if Congress passes what could be the last stimulus package, which could include employee liability protection for businesses. The measure, if passed, would shield businesses, health-care facilities, and schools from being sued by customers or employees who say they contracted the coronavirus from them. Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have backed the proposal, while Democrats have opposed it.

“Companies really need to listen to their people and get a finger on the pulse of their people,” Kramer said. “Understanding what your employees want is a major thing.”