Flexible schedules, catered meals: After two years of remote work forced by COVID-19, Chicago-area companies — from behemoth Google to small businesses — are trying to lure office workers back with new perks and the promise of more teamwork and collaboration.
Some workers are ready to return. But others told WBEZ the pandemic has changed how they feel about in-person work. That may be showing up in new data from Kastle Systems that put Chicago behind the national average when it comes to average office occupancy levels.
What is factoring into a decision to return to offices in-person, or not? Here is what’s weighing on five people from a variety of Chicago-area industries in return-to-office limbo.
A nonprofit leader worried about crowded public transit
A 22-year veteran of the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago and the organization’s chief empowerment officer, Loren Simmons, 61, leads a team of about 100 employees who help sexual assault survivors in various stages of recovery. The YWCA is the largest provider of sexual assault services in Illinois, and people are constantly in need, she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic challenged how her team works. It also forced changes in her own office-going habits, including her commute.
In March 2020, when her downtown office closed due to the pandemic, Simmons and her co-workers scrambled to figure out how to continue to connect 24 hours a day with survivors. How would they get into hospitals?
“The work we do is really out in the community,” Simmons said. “It’s not at home on a computer, right? So we figured out how to pivot.”
The staff began counseling and meeting with court clients over the phone. For survivors in the hospital, they left their contact information in folders for nurses to distribute and, if someone decided they wanted help, used tablets to communicate.
After working remotely for much of the pandemic, Simmons was one of the first employees back in her office as COVID rates started to decline.
“I didn’t like working from home every day,” she said. “I’m a people person and an office is where I can see and hear people working, talking and sharing ideas.”
Simmons originally commuted by bus from her home in Pullman to the YWCA’s downtown office. Concerned about crowded public transportation and the risk of infection, she moved her work supplies to the association’s office in Roseland.
Now Simmons drives to work every day. It’s a short drive, but there’s a trade-off: rising gas prices.
New safety measures have helped ease her mind. Employees come into the offices on a staggered schedule to limit contact, and they no longer gather in big groups.
There’s also a fresh emphasis on the overall wellness of every employee. Simmons and other managers have initiated “Wellness Wednesdays” where they talk about mental health and offer sessions for employees.
“We’re trying to look at how to make our environment healthy so that people can bring their authentic self to work,” she said. “We’ve got to think about people beyond the work environment. We want to offer that flexibility to help their own mental, physical and financial health.”
The manager at a creative agency who’s anxious about COVID rates
Like many people, Kevin Santana, 32, worked from home for nearly two years before his advertising agency — RAPP — started to float the idea of returning to the office near Grant Park.
In October, the company first sent around notices about its “back to the office” plan. The holding company and its executives — who are not based in Chicago — seemed more eager to get employees back, even as Santana’s leadership team in Chicago remained hesitant due to high COVID positivity rates citywide.
“Initially when they announced [the plan] I thought it was a little premature,” Santana said.
As Chicago confronted an end-of-the-year surge due to the omicron variant, Santana stayed at home and waited for the positivity rate to fall. Two things changed his mind about the office return: a subsequent decline in COVID rates, and a company vaccination requirement for in-person office use.
“Chicago does have a very high vaccination rate and I knew that everyone around me would be vaccinated as well,” Santana said. “That made me more comfortable going back.”
Santana’s employer made several adjustments. Employees wear color-coordinated bracelets to signal how comfortable they are with certain contact. In-person meetings are scaled back. In a sign of a new 2022 work culture, the company has tried to balance measures that keep workers at a safer distance with smaller gatherings that will lure people back, such as catered meals and happy hours for a few employees at a time.
“They are doing as much as they can within reason,” Santana said. “Catering lunch, bringing in breakfast, having after work functions. But they’re not putting on big office events.”
One change Santana has consciously made: less reliance on public transportation. He used to take the Red Line every day. Now, even for his one office day commute, he’ll use a ride -sharing app.
“I don’t have the same desire to use public transit,” he said. “I’m not super comfortable with it. I will [sometimes] just suck it up and ride the train but even when I’m not going into work, I’m still trying to limit the amount of times that I’m on public transit.
In his current role, Santana doesn’t foresee himself going into the office more than two times a week. It’s worked well so far, why try to change it up?
“I don’t foresee myself ever being a five times a week person nor do I think that the company would expect that,” he said. “I think we live in a different world now.”
The Fortune 500 office worker who dislikes commuting
When Zach Swimmer, 31, first started working for McDonald’s corporate office in the West Loop as an analyst for the Global Food Team, it was hard to beat his commute.
“My commute was effectively a one-minute walk,” said Swimmer, who lived nearby.
Then he moved about 30 minutes away, to Bucktown, and COVID-19 hit.
After more than a year of remote work for office employees and the rollout of vaccines, McDonald’s started to encourage employees to come back to the West Loop in the summer of 2021. Omicron changed those plans, and the office once again closed. Swimmer ended up staying at home for a little longer.
“It was mainly on a case-by-case basis,” Swimmer said. “The situation was really, ‘Talk to your manager, get with your team and figure out a working style that works for everyone.’”
Once the omicron surge cooled in Chicago — and when Swimmer was ready to face his new, more daunting commute — he started to go into the office once or twice a week.
“It wasn’t a health and safety concern for me, it was more so just getting back into the routine after not commuting for so long,” Swimmer said. “That’s been the biggest hump to get over.”
Swimmer’s in-office routine depends on his schedule. He’s allowed the flexibility to stay at home if he has early morning calls. He will go into the office if certain meetings make more sense face-to-face with team members. He sees the benefits of both sides.
“It is nice to be able to have those hallway conversations and look over my shoulder and ask my boss easy questions,” Swimmer said. “It’s a trade-off, right? Is that extra benefit of being in person worth the extra time out of everyone’s day of getting ready, making the commute and all that stuff? For me, it depends on the day and what my schedule is.”
Swimmer sees McDonald’s sticking to the three-day-a-week in-office guidance that’s in place now for the foreseeable future.
“If you’re getting your job done and you’re only going in once or twice a week, the general feeling of managers is that’s OK,” he said. “To compete with a lot of the leading companies who have been as flexible or more flexible, I don’t think they can go back to even a four-day-a-week office schedule.”
The small business CEO on the fence about keeping the office
Mae Whiteside Williams, 48, is a civil engineer and the sole founder and CEO of CKL Engineers in Chicago. COVID forced her to make many tough decisions about her small business, and most recently she’s had to weigh whether to bring employees back to the office.
Adjusting to work-from-home life initially was tough for everyone at CKL. Engineers who were used to being in the field were stuck in a static work environment. From her perspective, Williams had to handle running a team, navigating a new work life of her own and needing to plan for the company’s eventual return to the office.
Meanwhile, she had anxiety about what would happen to her company, which employs between 20 and 30 people depending on how busy the construction season is.
“It was scary as a small firm,” she said. “I had to figure out how am I going to keep these people together? Hopefully they’re not sitting at home looking at [the job-searching website] Indeed all day.”
Luckily Williams and her team stuck together. She hired more people during the pandemic and eventually brought her junior employees into the office, some for the first time ever as new hires. Still, Williams downsized her office space by about 40% to cut costs.
Later in 2021, Williams invited her senior engineers to come into the office and collaborate with the junior engineers, but she did so voluntarily. She didn’t want to mandate people to come back knowing flexibility was a priority for her employees.
“The reservation I had was, ‘How would others feel about coming back if I told them they had to?’” she said. “I made it on an as-needed basis.”
Williams and CKL still have office space in River West, but lately, Williams has gone back and forth about selling her office space all together.
“I struggle with keeping an office,” she said. “There’s a chance that we go fully remote, but I think we’re going to maintain our office address so at least our engineers feel that there’s actually a place where CKL exists.”
There are two other reasons why Williams wants to hold on to the office: One is that it means something to her as a Black woman business owner to have a physical office downtown.
The second is more logistical.
“Part of me says construction engineers don’t need an office, but then another part of me says these [younger] engineers who are zero to three years out of college who are struggling, I’m almost thinking the heck with work from home,” she said with a laugh. “You’re talking about kids here.”
The onboarding specialist whose job is tough to do remotely
As a leader of a market research team at the commercial real estate broker Jones Lang LaSalle, Edgar Leon, 27, faced a key challenge when offices closed due to COVID-19: How would he train new analysts remotely?
“Getting new hires up to speed, having them understand our culture, giving them the perspective of what the job would demand — it was really difficult,” Leon said.
Like many of his coworkers, Leon said that when the office closed, he also found it tough to separate his work and home life. Not having a 45-minute commute was nice, but the benefits of collaborating with a team were tough to replicate.
By fall 2021, Leon and his director started to talk about how a hybrid schedule would benefit the collaborative aspects of the team.
They landed on three days in, two days at home. Leon said it’s been a smooth transition.
“To me, being able to engage again with our peers allowed us to be really efficient in our work,” Leon said.
Leon expects to see even more people in Chicago return to the office once it finally starts to warm up in the city. He’s already noticed the Metra train carts that used to have a handful of people start to slowly fill up.
“The other day I had someone sit next to me,” Leon said with awe. Something as simple as that seemed inconceivable 12 months ago.
Patrick Filbin is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.
It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.