Downtown firms welcome workers back — carefully

With offices designed for more space and infection control, employers are looking at flexible schedules in the weeks ahead.

By David Roeder

Maybe it’s the traffic on the Kennedy. Or maybe it’s how many ramps you ascend in that downtown parking garage.

People whose jobs take them in or near the Loop have devised their own measurements for how quickly remote work abates and downtown offices repopulate. The return to workplaces has been slow but the pace is picking up. Employers are planning to bring more staff back, with flexibility in mind.

David Casper, CEO of BMO Harris Bank, can monitor downtown’s comeback from his office at 111 W. Monroe St.

“Every day, I see a few more people,” he told a meeting of business leaders Tuesday. “The Starbucks across the street is busier every day.”

With COVID-19 vaccines more common, Casper said he wants more downtown staffers of Chicago’s second largest bank back at their desks in early June. He’s aiming for a 50-50 split between office shifts and working from home, but emphasized there will be adjustments based on personal needs.

“If you’re not comfortable, you need to talk to your manager,” Casper said — and he’s urging managers to be generous.

Other large Chicago employers, such as J.P. Morgan Chase and the investment firm Citadel, are asking more employees to return this summer on at least a hybrid schedule. The Chicago Loop Alliance, which promotes downtown business activity, said those announcements alone should account for 10,000 people coming back downtown.

Technology giants with significant Chicago payrolls are rolling out their own plans, but aren’t abandoning remote work. Google has said it wants more staff back starting in September. Facebook has been more friendly to remote work, saying many employees can keep doing it permanently, although they might be in for pay cuts if they move somewhere with a cheaper cost of living.

Smaller companies also are repopulating offices, but with strategies they say depend on health advisories and progress against the pandemic.

Steve Rappin, CEO of Evergreen Real Estate Group, said about 70 of 400 staffers use the main office at 566 W. Lake St. Nothing will be mandatory, but he said more will be encouraged to return starting July 6.