The Boulos Company's latest commercial real estate survey suggests many Portland-area companies and their employees are eager to be back in the office. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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Twenty months into the coronavirus pandemic, office workers in Portland may be getting the hang of dealing with a new normal.

During the worst days of summer and fall in 2020, downtowns across the country were eerily quiet. Routines changed, kitchen tables became work desks, and business suits were swapped for sweatpants and flannel.

But having now grown more accustomed to handling the world at large, and with vaccination rates high in greater Portland, many workers are venturing back to their offices and desks.

Nate Stevens and Christopher Stephenson
The Boulos Company partner and broker Nate Stevens, left, and Christopher Stephenson, vice president of operations and marketing, in newly leased office space at 465 Congress St. in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Christopher Stephenson, vice president of operations and marketing at commercial real estate firm The Boulos Company, said their latest survey results are largely good news: nearly 75 percent of companies have said their offices are open for employees. He said that’s a significant departure from this time last year when the most common thing they heard from companies about the workforce returning was “we don’t know.”

“To have flipped that on its head, that was surprising to us,” Stephenson said.

Nate Stevens, a Boulos partner and broker, also said the uncertainty factor has changed considerably in just a year.

“What that’s telling me, and what I’ve heard anecdotally, is there’s a much clearer path forward for office occupiers, whereas a year ago no one knew anything,” Stevens said.

The second volume of the work from home impact study by Boulos, titled “Where is Maine Working,” found that nearly half of the respondents are no longer working from home, while some 30 percent said they sometimes work from home. Last year, the survey showed the majority of people identified as sometimes working from home. Those who didn’t work from home were less than 30 percent of the responders.

A survey like this is a useful tool for local companies and businesses to see what the trends are when evaluating their work-from-home and office space policies going forward.

Stephenson said the number of employees who were fully back in their offices “was ahead of what we expected” when compared with national statistics and trends in larger cities.

However, this was tempered by the fact that among companies with more than 101 people, just 33 percent said they are fully back in the office and no longer working from home.

Stephenson said the drop-off for larger companies is a result of having to navigate more complex terrain when getting hundreds of employees back into an office space. While a smaller company with a few dozen people can more easily navigate having some employees be fully remote, some in a hybrid system, and the majority being back in the office, those with significantly larger workforces require more checks and balances in a spread-out workforce.

“Over time, I think hybrid models will be more common with bigger companies,” Stephenson said.

Among larger companies, the number with offices open and ready for those who want to return also trailed the overall response, at just 56 percent.

The study showed nearly 60 percent of responders said their companies would be using a hybrid approach, with employees splitting time between being in the office and working at home. But 36 percent said they plan to have all employees eventually return to the office full time; only 5 percent said they would transition to a fully remote model.

Stevens said the hybrid model is becoming a competitive advantage for employers looking to hire or retain employees. The concept will differ from workplace to workplace – it could be schedule-based, or by department, or some workers just wanting to be home a few days each month – but he said one thing is clear: hybrid appeals to a younger workforce and will be seen as an advantage, so offering work-from-home capabilities is necessary.

The most common answer among respondents around what percent of a workday would people prefer to spend working in the office was overwhelmingly supportive, with nearly half of responders saying they would want to be in the office 81-100 percent of the time.

More than half of responders – 51 percent – said they felt positive about their company returning to the office.

According to the survey, 92 percent of respondents said they are not providing any incentives to entice workers back to the office.

The majority of respondents, just under 65 percent, said they will not change the size of their office going forward due to hybrid models or for health concerns following the pandemic. Of those who do plan a change, 14 percent said they would reduce their square footage; 5 percent said they would increase their space, and just a handful said they would no longer need any office space.

This time last year, Stephenson said, there was more uncertainty about whether employers would have to reduce office space going forward. However, there was confidence even then that employees would eventually return.

Both Stevens and Stephenson said the trend is positive for businesses looking to extend or renew their leases, or looking for more downtown space. They said demand for office space, and retail and restaurant space, is returning, which is a sign of business confidence.

“We’ve seen it come a long way,” Stevens said.