Real Estate

Downtown Chicago Office Buildings Remain Near Empty, But for How Long?

The skyscrapers and office buildings of downtown Chicago remain less than half full of workers

NBC Universal, Inc.

The work-from-home strategy adopted by many companies and employees during the pandemic will soon be shifting as employees return to fill the office buildings of downtown Chicago, according to people who run the towering structures that make up the city’s iconic skyline.

A recent poll of business leaders and professionals conducted by the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago (BOMA Chicago) found 52% are excited to return to the office, 25% are nervous, but looking forward to it and 23% are undecided.

Commercial real estate giant JLL said most of its Chicago business tenants kept their leases and are ready to adapt to the new workspace reality of a post-pandemic world.

“Tenants are reconsidering inevitably how they design their space and how often their employees may come into the office,” said Matt Carolan, executive managing director of JLL. “So what might have been typically have been a five-day work week might look like a three-day work week where you have your folks coming in Tuesday, Wednesdays, Thursdays.”

JLL said returning employees can expect a super clean environment, healthier air and additional signage in many buildings.

“It might not necessarily be a permanent desk any longer,” Carolan said. “It could be a temporary place for you to sit down, but there could be conference tables.  There could be collaborative areas.”

However, the skyscrapers and office buildings of downtown Chicago remain less than half full of workers. Downtown had a headcount capacity of around 90% preceding the pandemic, but a study in April found the capacity at 11%, according to BOMA Chicago.

Just ask the small business owners, many of whom rely on office workers as their core customers.

“We’re seeing students back, but we’re still not seeing office workers and business people back yet,” said café owner Tamar Mizrahi of Goddess and the Baker.

Michael Edwards, president and CEO of the Chicago Loop Alliance, told NBC 5 the downtown area is going to “turn back on like a dimmer switch.”

“There’s just going to be too much interesting things to do to stay at home,” Edwards said. “This fear of missing out, I think, is going to become much more of an issue and an advantage for downtown.”

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