Looking over this year’s Best Places to Work winners, it’s hard not to get nostalgic for the office, pre-COVID. Talk of tricked-out breakrooms, birthday celebrations, impromptu happy hours and rooftop decks has us pining for the days of interacting in real life with co-workers.
Today, most of us are still working from home, unsure when office life (or any part of life) will be back to normal. It will happen, of course, and when it does, these companies are showing the way: providing employees with the perks, amenities, pay and benefits that keep them happy and productive.
A record 14,522 employees participated in our survey about their workplaces this year, well before the virus took hold.
The centerpiece of the modernization project is a massive one-acre outdoor multi-level landscaped terrace, the largest of its kind in the Chicago suburban office market. The space features flexible seating and spacious gathering areas, which is a perfect amenity for tenants in today’s environment. Fire pits and grills add to the casual vibe, and a synthetic lawn area is perfect for outdoor health and wellness programming. Additional improvements include fully renovated lobbies, elevator cabs, common areas, the addition of a game room and a renovated café/tenant lounge with a fireplace and views of the outdoor area.
“The excellent location and wealth of newly upgraded amenities at Continental Tower offers an exceptional choice for tenants seeking best-in-class space in the Chicago suburban office market,” said Peter Gottlieb with Rubenstein Partners.
In 2015, Glenstar invested an initial $30 million highlighted by the construction of a 734-stall parking garage, reconfigured site plan with newly created entrances, canopies and drop-off areas and a renovation of a 23,000-square-foot fitness center run by Midtown Fitness.
“When we began this project, corporate tenants were looking for highly-amenitized buildings with modern interiors and vibrant communities,” said Glenstar’s Michael Klein. “Now everyone’s concern is around safety and social distancing—and we have a robust program in place to address this. Our new amenities, especially our sprawling outdoor areas, provide tenants the opportunity to work outdoors and meet with their colleagues at a safe distance. We are pleased that the improvements we recently completed translate well into our current environment.”
Continental Towers is a three tower office complex located in Northwest suburban Chicago. The buildings sit on 34 acres with unobstructed views in all directions, easy access to the Woodfield Mall and high visibility along I-90. Notable tenants include Verizon and Panasonic.
Glenstar originally acquired Continental Towers in 2013 and recapitalized the project in 2018 with Philadelphia-based Rubenstein Partners, L.P.
Source: RE Journals
The body temperatures of employees Egor Machaca, left, and Nicole Drougas are detected with DuThermX, a fully integrated body temperature measurement system, at Dubak Electrical Group in La Grange on May 4, 2020. Dubak Electrical Group is selling temperature-taking systems for entrances to buildings that can take up to 40 people’s temperatures simultaneously and can be integrated with security systems. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Masked workers walk through an entrance-only door into the office high-rise, where their temperatures are taken while passing through security.
Lines form in lobbies as elevators bring small groups of workers — each facing a different wall — to their floors.
Touchless doors open into corporate offices, which have been reconfigured to limit close, face-to-face encounters.
Building extras like restaurants, if they’re open, only offer carry-out. Fitness centers and lounges are closed.
DuThermX, a fully integrated body temperature measurement system that is built at Dubak Electrical Group in LaGrange.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
The offices that people will return to post-pandemic are a sharp contrast from the collaborative work spaces and amenity filled workplaces they walked out of in mid-March to begin working from home.
Indeed, Chicago’s return to the office is expected to usher in the most dramatic changes in big commercial buildings in nearly two decades. And new technologies are emerging to help make the return safer.
“Just like life after 9/11, when you saw all this security being added in buildings, you’ll see changes happen in our public environments because of the pandemic,” said Karl Heitman, president of Itasca-based Heitman Architects.
While Chicago’s biggest employers and property owners are drawing up plans and strategizing on best practices, they are doing so behind virtual closed doors.
Those decisions will impact 406,000 downtown office workers, according to World Business Chicago.
Arriving at a consensus may not be easy, since COVID-19 responses have largely been left up to city and state leaders. Locally, Mayor Lori Lightfoot last month announced the formation of the COVID-19 Recovery Taskforce, which she will co-chair with Sam Skinner, former President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff.
The 2001 terrorist attacks and natural disasters provide some return-to-work precedents, but there has been no event that leaves behind a playbook for the aftermath of a pandemic that effectively shut down the global economy to all but the basics.
Willis Tower and Chase Tower are lit in red in downtown Chicago on May 2, 2020. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)
There’s also an unclear timeline for a vaccine, widespread testing or other medical breakthroughs that would clear the path to a full-fledged return of economic activity. Offices will be among the third phase of businesses to reopen in Illinois, with restrictions on capacity, according to a plan unveiled Tuesday by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
“There just isn’t a standard of practice that employers can turn to and say ‘We’re doing what other employers are doing,’” said Dave Guilmette, president of health solutions for global consulting giant Aon, which advises clients on risk management, health policies and other workplace issues.
His firm is the anchor tenant in Chicago’s third-tallest skyscraper, which serves as Aon’s U.S. headquarters. Aon is talking with 20 of Chicago’s biggest employers, as well as building owners and local authorities, to establish a cohesive plan for the Chicago area, which is home to some of the world’s largest corporations, Guilmette said.
“You’re going to need to look to businesses to take the lead,” Guilmette said.
Real estate brokerages, architecture firms and firms are creating their own guidelines.
Ideas discussed include having everyone in an office walk in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction like one-way traffic on a road, moving desks so they don’t face one another, installing barriers between work stations and reducing crowds in highly populated areas like cafeterias and conference rooms. Employers also must decide whether masks or other face coverings will be mandatory.
Employer-provided meals and community refrigerators could be among the many casualties, at least initially, said Michelle Osburn, workplace practice leader and associate principal at architecture firm Perkins and Will.
“In the near term, it’s not about radical changes,” Osburn said. “It’s understanding protocols around things like food and beverage. What are we going to do about coffee?”
Early goals also will include making employees comfortable with their commutes and navigating tight areas such as elevators, she said.
Workers’ top concerns include office cleanliness, returning to public transportation and proximity of coworkers, according to a workplace survey of 110 North American companies by commercial real estate brokerage Jones Lang LaSalle. Among workers who typically take trains or buses to work, 28% said they will seek an alternate form of transportation when they return to the office, according to JLL.
How quickly workers regain trust in public transportation could have a lasting impact on commuting patterns, residential markets, and where companies ultimately choose to locate.
And the idea of only allowing four or five people in an elevator at a time could create a major bottleneck in the lobby of a skyscraper such as the 110-story Willis Tower, where 15,000 people work each day.
“A lot of big, high-rise office buildings are struggling with that,” said Michael Cornicelli, executive vice president of BOMA/Chicago, an association of 240 downtown buildings.
Chicago-based GlenStar Properties got its first look at elevator etiquette May 1, when workers returned to the Dallas-area office properties it owns.
There has been strong compliance to new rules, such as exterior doors designated for entrance or exit only, GlenStar co-founder and managing director Michael Klein said. Elevators are limited to four passengers, each facing a different direction marked on the floor, he said.
Texas’ return to the office has been a trial run for the eventual reopening of GlenStar’s buildings in Chicago, where it owns the Chicago Board of Trade Building and 55 East Monroe. GlenStar also owns Chicago office complexes near O’Hare International and in suburbs including Schaumburg and Rolling Meadows.
The re-entry process in Chicago could move slowly. Companies are expected to bring in a small percentage of workers initially, while staggering start and end times to further limit crowds.
While landlords and employers map out their plans, new technology is emerging to help them. One area where there’s keen interest is assessing who might be coming to work sick.
La Grange-based Dubak Electrical Group recently unveiled a system that allows as many as 40 employees’ temperatures to be taken simultaneously, using an entryway similar to a metal detector. Results are integrated into a facility’s security system.
A body temperature of employee Nicole Drougas is detected with DuThermX, a fully integrated body temperature measurement system at Dubak Electrical Group in LaGrange on May 4, 2020. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
As groups of people walk through the entrance to a warehouse, office building, sports venue or airport security checkpoint, a high temperature sets off an alarm. The person with a fever can be pulled aside immediately, or the system can be used to alert building management, security, and the ill employee’s human resources department by email and text message.
Dubak’s system, DuThermX, which is patent pending, can quickly identify an office worker who already has a fever, but it doesn’t capture people who are asymptomatic, said Chief Operating Officer Nick Dubak.
Widespread temperature-taking already is emerging in food processing plants, distribution centers and warehouse settings. It would be new in corporate offices.
“This is the new normal,” Dubak said. “This cuts the anxiety of coming back to work, which is something we need to solve from a business perspective.”
The company already has 150 orders from Denver to the East Coast, Dubak said. Several systems already are in use in the Chicago area, Dubak said, but he declined to specify locations.
The family owned firm sped up the system’s development in January, when it became apparent the virus would have a major impact on the United States, Dubak said.
“I think this is a tool where we can start looking at the data and spotting trends,” he said. “You can use that data to enhance sanitation or take seasonal approaches to the unknown. Today we have COVID-19. What’s next tomorrow?”
Meanwhile, Zebra Technologies is developing a contact-tracing device that could ensure social-distancing policies are followed in the workplace.
The company already has equipped some of its own workers in research and development and warehouse facilities with devices that issue an alert when workers get too close. The device also would be able to track data on workers’ movements so that if an employee tested positive for COVID-19, the company could determine who may have been exposed, said Chief Financial Officer Olivier Leonetti.
The device, called Zebra MotionWorks Proximity, will be used primarily in distribution centers but has the potential to be used in offices and other workplaces, the company said.
Experts have mixed opinions on whether temperature checkpoints will become commonplace in Chicago. And using technology to closely monitor the flow of people in an office or more broadly through contact tracing is viewed as effective but also controversial.
“There’s a really important question about contact tracing that will need to be thought through,” Aon’s Guilmette said. “We know the technology works. We don’t have policy at the government level or the business level, and there are privacy issues associated with it.”
While navigating tricky ethical and legal issues, many corporations also are laying off workers, renegotiating leases and slashing other spending. It’s unclear how long the economy might take to recover.
With those conditions in mind, Chicago-based Big Construction recently circulated a pricing list for a wide ranges of office upgrades, ranging from automatically opening doors and hand-sanitizing stations to heftier projects like new air circulation systems.
“We’ve gotten more of a response than I expected,” CEO Tony Iannessa said. “A lot of clients are thinking about this and taking it very seriously.”
For office tenants, short-term changes can buy time to assess the long-term implications of COVID-19.
“Nobody knows what the future of the office looks like,” Iannessa said.
The pandemic threatens to reverse some office trends that have emerged in recent years, such as bench-style seating with workers in close proximity; the popularity of co-working spaces; and wide-open layouts with few private offices or barriers.
Time will tell whether the new realities might slow the migration of tenants to downtown Chicago from the suburbs, or the proliferation of high-end amenities open to all workers in an office tower.
“The tenant lounge, who’s going to that?” said Savills broker Joe Learner, who represents office tenants. “The fitness center, who’s going to that? All these amenities that were big attracters to those buildings, and that cost a lot of capital to create, those spaces are now challenged.”
Stay-at-home orders also are creating new habits. Workplace experts believe recent months have served as a trial run toward more people working from home.
“I think every company is certainly evaluating now, how does remote working fit into the overall business plan?” said Osburn at Perkins and Will. “It’s not really a one size fits all. Some people come in for collaboration and some come in to focus because they can’t focus at home.
“Every client is thinking about it, and even the ones who thought they had it figured out are rethinking it.”
Work-from-home policies could create more demand for unassigned seating, or “hoteling,” while reducing overall demand for office space.
“We’re trying not to knee-jerk react,” said GlenStar’s Klein. “I don’t think there will be extremes where everybody moves to the suburbs or everyone goes to private offices. Changes will be incremental. In the end, people want to be together.”
Source: Chicago Tribune
MiSUMi USA is relocating its corporate headquarters operations into nearly 48,000 square feet of space at 1475 E. Woodfield Road in Glenstar’s Schaumburg Corporate Center here.
The firm signed a 47,716-square-foot lease deal at the 1-million-square-foot, three-building, Class A office complex.
Newmark Knight Frank’s senior managing director Paul Buckingham and managing directors Brian Reaney and Matt Frazee represented MiSUMi USA in the transaction. Glenstar’s Dave Trumpy and Bill Saviski represented the building ownership in the transaction.
MiSUMi USA plans to take occupancy of its new space in June of this year. The firm is relocating from 1717 Penny Lane in Schaumburg, where it currently leases 32,000 square feet.
“We are thrilled to be moving our North American headquarters to the beautifully redeveloped Schaumburg Corporate Center,” says VP of human resources for MiSUMi USA Randy Yu. “Glenstar’s investment in the building has created what will be a second-to-none experience for our employees.”
Chicago-based Glenstar, who acquired the asset located adjacent to the Woodfield Mall in 2017 for more than $70 million, has since completed a $30-million redevelopment of the property to include a new 500-car parking garage, a 10,000-square-foot state-of-the-art conference center as well as upgrades to the building’s common corridors, washrooms and elevators. In addition, Glenstar renovated the four-story atrium, fitness center, building lobbies, entrances and canopies at the complex.
Steve Wright, left, and Roger Heerema of Wright Heerema Architects
If you ask Steve Wright how to revive an outdated suburban office building to cater to millennials, the answer starts with plants.
At the former OfficeMax headquarters in Naperville, his architecture firm and developer Franklin Partners cut away portions of large trees, put in new smaller ones and strategically replanted some flower beds as part of a multimillion-dollar redevelopment to make the 350,000-square-foot property more appealing to a variety of companies.
“It gives a little better scale to the entrance not to have it be shrouded in landscaping,” says the principal of Chicago-based Wright Heerema Architects. “And we updated the plant material for today’s tastes. There’s no petunias anymore.”
Horticulture isn’t necessarily Wright’s specialty, but knowing what will help convince a company in 2020 to lease an office in the suburbs is. The firm has worked with landlords to redesign more than two dozen suburban office properties over the past three years, projects totaling an estimated $80 million in capital improvements ranging from six-figure face-lifts to a $30 million overhaul.
It’s one of several design and consulting firms helping landlords redraw properties in the suburban office market as it recovers from a decade of high-profile companies uprooting for downtown in pursuit of young talent.
After the suburbs lost 2.5 million square feet of office tenants in 2017 and 2018 combined, companies reversed that trend last year by adding back more than 1 million square feet of net new leasing, the most for any year since 2015, according to data from brokerage Jones Lang LaSalle.ADVERTISINGinRead invented by Teads
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Many pockets of the suburbs are still grappling with high vacancy and landlords having a hard time justifying big renovations out of fear they won’t recoup their investments through higher rents. But the recent demand momentum is spurring more landlords to plow capital into well-located suburban office buildings, some proving there’s money to be made if updates are done right. And they’re relying on firms like Wright Heerema to show them how the next generation of suburban workspace should look.
“We’re creating a sense of community, so that people don’t feel left out being in the suburbs,” says Wright, who has spent four decades designing offices in the Chicago suburbs. Today it is taking on revamps of buildings it helped design when they were new a generation ago, when many corporate giants were operating out of large, single-tenant buildings meant to be more “stately” than welcoming, he says.
That means taking cues from urban trends: natural wood and neutral color tones are in and marble isn’t, for example. But making a sprawling suburban office campus appealing to a company chasing a generation of employees that highly value the experience of their workday requires far more than making a 30-year-old tenant lounge look like something out of the West Loop.
For one, grand front desks typically found just inside the entrance of office properties built in the 1980s and 1990s no longer work. Those are being hidden and replaced by amenities that generate the most activity, like coffee bars, fitness centers and conferencing space. “It’s not unlike walking into a hotel,” says principal Roger Heerema. “There’s a feeling of life that is immediately apparent.”
Strategic use of light fixtures and canopies over entrances make a difference, he says, as does making sure tenants are actually noticing them. At the Westwood, a half-empty, two-building office complex being renovated in west suburban Lisle, the tenant lounge is located near a main visitor entrance. So Wright Heerema designed new lounges for both buildings near second entrances where most employees come and go.
The lobby of Presidents Plaza before, inset, and after its renovation.
At Presidents Plaza near O’Hare International Airport, a reclaimed-wood-clad coffee bar that becomes a regular bar by 4 p.m. each day is now a lobby focal point, and a jumble of planters and trees in its main atrium have been replaced by a minimalist collection of lounge seating, part of a $20 million renovation by Chicago-based developer GlenStar.
The payoff: Tenants have recently leased space at Presidents Plaza for $24 per square foot before taxes and operating expenses, or about 25 percent more than those that signed two years ago, according to the property’s owners.
In the suburbs’ corporate heyday, office buildings “were machines for working—you packed people into them,” says OKW Architects Chairman and CEO Jon Talty. “That attitude has changed profoundly. The lifeless machines need to have meaning to them to be relevant.”
Talty says the trick is to try to use materials and designs that are equal parts “timeless” in style, appealing to today’s tenants and also cost-effective enough that they could be totally redone again in 10 years.
The new Denver-based owner of the former Sara Lee headquarters in Downers Grove recently hired OKW to design another round of upgrades even though the previous landlord spent $7.4 million over the past several years on updates that helped refill the 13-story building with new tenants.
“It’s fashion, to a certain degree,” says Talty, whose firm helped redesign the former Nokia Siemens campus in Arlington Heights for financial services firm HSBC. “The three-button suit is out and we’ve got to move to the next thing.”
Some revamped suburban office buildings are still hunting for tenants. The former OfficeMax home—rebranded as the Shuman—has leased or is finalizing deals with half a dozen companies for about 25 percent of the building. They’re betting demand will grow as more millennials move to the suburbs and downtown rents keep rising.
But many outmoded office properties will be better off repurposed rather than revived with new amenities, Talty says. Especially as companies lay out offices more efficiently to squeeze more people into smaller spaces than they did 10 or 20 years ago.
“They’re not all going to be repositioned,” he says. “The better ones will be, and the weaker ones are going to have to become something else.”
Top tier is the descriptor most used for an office asset located at 59010 North Central Expressway. Glenstar recently acquired Premier Place, a 457,000-square-foot class-A office building, with a 62,000-square-foot Life Time Fitness club. The sale price was not disclosed.
After spending more than $50 million and 14 months in construction, owners of one of North Dallas’ biggest office campuses are pulling the wraps off the redo.
The 14-acre Energy Square at North Central Expressway and University Drive has as much office space as a downtown skyscraper but spread among five buildings. The office towers were built over 50 years ago and were divided by parking lots, loading docks and driveways.
Energy Square owners GlenStar Properties and USAA Real Estate reworked the entire block, connecting the high-rises with a new entry drive, landscaped plaza areas and shared amenities.
“We are 98.5% done,” said GlenStar principal Matthew Omundson. “We are finishing all the details like artwork and furniture. We put our tenants through a lot with the construction. The response we’ve gotten now that it has been delivered is very positive.”
The office towers are more than 80% percent leased with new deals in the works since redevelopment is wrapping up. Additions to the campus include a large tenant conference center, a fitness center with rooftop patios and multiple outdoor gathering spaces for workers. Fitness facilities alone total 10,000 square feet.
“We have close to 4,000 people working in this campus,” Omundson said. “We needed to do something large enough to accommodate them.”
All of the buildings have gotten new eatery additions, ranging from snack bars to full-scale restaurants.
“We have four on-site food options and we have two more to be signed up soon,” he said.
Public areas in the office buildings have large seating areas with fireplaces, big screen TVs and indoor and outdoor lounge areas. “Every building has a brand-new lobby,” Omundson said.
The campus is visually connected by Brad Oldham’s outdoor art sculptures, and extensive landscaping designed by Studio Outside.
“We have more than a mile of steel planter boxes,” Omundson said.
Architect Gensler, which relocated its regional office to the project, redesigned the buildings. Whiting-Turner was the general contractor.
The redevelopment also included a fix-up of the landmark Meadows Building, one of Dallas’ first “suburban” office towers. The other three office towers were constructed in 1974, 1981 and 1986.
JLL’s Jeff Eckert, Blake Shipley and Haley Hullett are leading the leasing efforts for the property.
GlenStar and USAA Real Estate paid about $150 million in 2015 for the three towers. The historic Meadows Buildings was purchased later from a West Coast owner. The property is USAA Real Estate’s largest holding in North Texas.
“When we acquired this project, I said USAA Real Estate could not be more pleased to be part of this exciting renaissance of Energy Square and the Meadows Building,” Len O’Donnell, president and CEO, said in a statement. “And today, I am extremely pleased that our partnership has delivered on that renaissance. There isn’t anything like it along Central Expressway.”
GlenStar plans to celebrate the project completion with a series of entertainment gatherings.
“Those are the type of events that now that we have the space we will be providing,” Omundson said. “It’s what the employers and workforces are looking for today.”