When Meta, the social media giant formerly known as Facebook, hosted the grand opening for its headquarters in Chicago’s Fulton Market district last week, it was a celebration delayed more than two years by the pandemic.
Despite welcoming hundreds of cheering employees with free pie, confetti bursts and a rousing performance by the Chicago Bucket Boys, the celebration, which also marked Meta’s 15th anniversary in Chicago, was muted by a hybrid return to office that could make the expansive new workplace a monument to the past.
“We’d love to see people in the office two to three times a week,” said Judy Toland, 50, who heads up the Meta Chicago office. “But that is an option, that is not a mandate.”
Companies across Chicago are beginning to herd employees back into the office, but after two years of remote working and the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, it is a tentative process at best. Employees used to the flexibility of remote working are balking at a mandatory return, while hybrid work schedules turn the once busy office into a fortress of solitude.
Meta Chicago, which grew from a suburban basement operation in 2007 to become the largest Midwest outpost of the Menlo Park, California-based company, has about 500 employees, most of whom are salespeople, along with technology, finance, recruitment and other positions, Toland said. The new office was designed to handle many more employees on a daily basis.
In 2018, the company leased 263,000 square feet of the 35-story tower at 151 N. Franklin St., which had just been completed. Facebook said at the time that the space, which covers 11 floors and nearly a third of the building, would enable an expanded presence and increased hiring in Chicago.
Facebook was planning to move out of its 100,000-square-foot office at 191 N. Wacker Drive in March 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and employees were sent home instead of to the new office. After 18 months of remote working, the Chicago office ventured a soft opening in August 2021, but the rise of the delta variant pushed the return back to January — just in time for omicron to delay plans again.
The company, which changed its name to Meta in October to reflect plans to expand its social media platforms into the metaverse — an immersive virtual reality experience — finally began to filter into its new Chicago office during the first quarter of 2022.
“We’re really almost at a critical mass of people back in the office,” said Toland. “We’re allowing people to progress to return to office in a fashion that is a little bit more gradual.”
But plenty of wide-open spaces remain at Meta’s Chicago office, which could accommodate 1,000 or more full-time employees. It is far from alone, as Chicago companies struggle to determine how much office space is enough in the post-pandemic world.
Two years after the pandemic scattered employees to remote locales, the workplace has been fundamentally changed, with downtown office vacancies at record highs and companies adopting long-term hybrid strategies to recruit and retain talent.
Remote working remains “a lasting repercussion” of the pandemic, with only 4% of companies requiring all employees to be in the office full time, according to an April survey of leading corporate executives by The Conference Board.
“Hybrid is here to stay, and will be one of the most significant organizational legacies of COVID-19,” said Robin Erickson, Chicago-based vice president at The Conference Board and a co-author of the study. “Employees are looking for more flexibility in their life, and they’ve gotten used to it.”
While senior executives would like to get employees back into the office to spur collaboration, companies have seen productivity flourish with remote working, and the balance of power swing toward employees, Erickson said. Driving that trend is a labor shortage that has spawned the so-called Great Resignation — people quitting their jobs to pursue more attractive and often more flexible opportunities.
With companies struggling to recruit and retain workers, 90% of employers are now allowing hybrid work, according to the survey. Nearly half are willing to hire entirely virtual workers, while 38% require a mix of remote and office time.
“I think companies are realizing that employees don’t want to go back to the workplace,” Erickson said. “And so they’re changing their policies to be more flexible.”
The trend has not been a friend to the Chicago office market, with companies continuing to shed space as long-term leases come up for renewal. For the first quarter, the central business district had an 18.9% vacancy rate, while Chicago metro was at 21.3%, both records, according to a Newmark report.
Tech giant Google, which leases 525,000 square feet across two buildings in Fulton Market — 1KFulton and 210 N. Carpenter St.— brought its more than 1,800 Chicago employees back to the offices in April on a hybrid schedule. Google employees spend about three days a week in the office and two days remotely, the company said.
In November 2019, Mountain View, California-based Google was poised for a much bigger expansion in Chicago, with plans to add 800,000 square feet of office space in Fulton Market, adding the capacity to hire thousands of new employees. Then the pandemic hit and Google backed off its ambitious real estate expansion, according to people familiar with the plans.
Basis Technologies, formerly Centro, a Chicago-based advertising technology company, has “fully embraced” a hybrid work strategy, with its nearly 1,000 employees, including 270 in Chicago, free to work in the office or remotely, the company said.
“It’s no longer about do you have a pingpong table and free snacks and beer on tap in the office,” said Katie Risch, chief marketing officer for Basis. “It’s really about letting employees determine where they want to work and trusting that everyone’s an adult, and they’re going to get their job done.”
The company is also experimenting with giving employees Friday afternoons off through September, something it may make permanent in the fall. In Britain, more than 70 companies began a trial four-day workweek in June, another post-pandemic trend aimed at improving work-life balance for employees, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
In October, Basis renewed its 70,000-square-foot lease in the Sullivan Center, the former Carson Pirie Scott & Co. building on State Street, through 2030, without giving up any space. Risch said the decision was driven mostly by a need for collaborative office functions, including meeting rooms and a training facility.
“Our offices, we’re going to start to see being used more for spaces to have meetings that really require creativity from the whole group,” Risch said. “Our day-to-day jobs can be done very well remotely.”
In March, Meta Chicago employees were asked to declare if they wanted to continue to work remotely or be “assigned” to the Fulton Market facility. The 500 or so that chose the office are now expected to work on a hybrid basis, although management is not taking attendance, Toland said.
“We haven’t subscribed to the methodology that other companies have, where they’re mandating people have to come in,” Toland said. “We feel though, in order to have a true office culture at some point, it would be great for people to come in two to three times a week.”
The new Meta office features rows of hoteling workstations and some assigned desks. It also offers an abundance of perks and quirks to lure employees into the space. There’s three cafeterias serving free meals, event rooms, lounges with the prerequisite table games and meeting rooms with clever Chicago-themed names such as “Glen Lerner,” the ubiquitous TV injury attorney, and “Bob Rooohrman,” honoring the late, great car dealer pitchman.
Among the more unusual perks is a vending machine dispensing free batteries, phone chargers, Ethernet cables and power cords, as well as COVID-19 test kits.
Meta, which formally changed its ticker symbol from FB to META on Thursday, has had a tumultuous year. In February, it reported losing users for the first time in its history during the previous quarter, precipitating a sell-off that cut Meta’s market cap by 26%, or $250 billion — the biggest one-day company valuation decline in U.S. stock market history.
Last month, the company mailed out $397 checks to 1.6 million Illinois Facebook users in a landmark $650 million class-action settlement over Facebook’s alleged violations of Illinois’ biometric privacy law.
Earlier this month, Sheryl Sandberg, the former Google executive who has been COO at Facebook for 14 years, announced she would be stepping down in the fall.
Toland said Meta Chicago has “much optimism” as the company sets off on its vision to build a new virtual reality in the metaverse. In the real world, Meta Chicago chose not to give up any office space at its new headquarters, despite the hybrid working paradigm.
Nikki Newsome, chief culture officer for Meta Chicago, said keeping the new space intact is a sign of the company’s commitment to the city. While she declined to say if Meta plans to increase hiring in Chicago, she said organic growth, including employees relocating from other regions, will continue to increase the ranks assigned to the Fulton Market office.
Chicago employees, meanwhile, are beginning to find more reasons to come into the office, from daily food specials to networking opportunities, Newsome said. Eventually, Meta Chicago will grow into the office, she said.
“I think that the amount of space we have is actually just perfect,” Newsome said.