The Des Moines skyline viewed from near the Capitol. (Photo by Perry Beeman, Iowa Capital Dispatch).
As more Iowans return to in-person work environments after a year of the pandemic, more businesses plan to offer partially at-home options for employees who want them.
Hybrid working alternatives are a popular reality for businesses in the newest phase of the novel coronavirus pandemic, said Kevin Crowley, commercial manager at NAI Iowa Realty. While some companies want to return to their offices, he said some employees are not ready to return.
“Businesses are eager to get their workers back into office spaces, safely,” he said. “Corporate culture and human interaction really adds value to work and life. People do want to gather again, but some employees are still hesitant.”
In May, Gov. Kim Reynolds encouraged Iowans to return to working in person. She asked people to “lean further into normal” following the lifting of COVID restrictions in the state.
However, many workers saw more flexibility in their jobs when they moved online, according to a Pew Research Center study published in December 2020. A majority, 54%, of those surveyed said they wanted to work from home after the pandemic ended.
The future of working in Iowa
Some of Iowa’s biggest employers are listening to employees who want to remain remote by offering more scheduling options. Principal Financial Group, a company that employs 9,000 Iowans, will offer its workers a greater mix of in-office, hybrid, and remote options than it did before COVID-19, said Phillip Nicolino, a spokesperson for the company, in an email to Iowa Capital Dispatch.
Though Principal opened its headquarters back in June 2020 on a voluntary basis, he said it averages only 20% of its pre-pandemic worker occupancy.
“Flexibility isn’t one size fits all, so rather than being prescriptive, we’re empowering leaders to work with their teams to establish arrangements that work best for individuals, teams, and the business,” he said. “With that in mind, hybrid employees will spend part of each work week in the office and part of each [week] working remotely. Specific schedules are determined at the team level.”
Nicolino said Principal has offered “flexible work options” for decades, and this is an expansion of those options. Employees of the company will begin their new work arrangements in September.
The more than 800 Iowans employed by Meredith Corporation will return to the office either five or three days per week in September, said Kara Kelly, the company’s director of corporate communications.
Greater Des Moines Partnership Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Tauscheck said there is optimism about returning to office spaces this summer.
“We are seeing a phased-in approach from many employers, with timelines stretching throughout the summer to Labor Day and some into Fall,” she said in a statement to Iowa Capital Dispatch. “We are seeing employers take varying approaches on remote work, though we expect to see most employees return to their offices a majority of the time as things return closer to the normal we remember.”
The expansion of coworking, remote spaces
Remote working options don’t necessarily mean working from home, especially in the newest stage of the pandemic, Geoff Wood, the founder of Gravitate Coworking, said.
During the pandemic, Gravitate added two new locations where partners can rent out workspace. Now, Wood said he’s seeing more demand than ever.
“The pandemic really exacerbated the conversation of remote companies,” he said. “We thought coming out of the pandemic that the need for companies like ours is bigger than it was before, and so far so good … Companies that aren’t offering remote options are going to get left behind.”
Coworking spaces also offer companies the ability to have employees from all over the United States, not only from their state or city, Wood said, allowing businesses to find the best person for a job regardless of where candidates reside. This is one of the reasons he said businesses like Gravitate Coworking are growing.
Working remotely is here to stay, Wood said, as more of the workforce has become accustomed to the flexibility of being out of the office.
“We’re seeing trends of more options to work remotely,” he said. “Going forward, looking at coworking options that are more flexible is something every company should be thinking about.”
Iowa’s changing commercial realty market
Several businesses, like restaurants and retail locations, are looking to expand their current market holdings, said Dan Corron, a sales and leasing associate at the Denny Elwell Company.
“People want to expand and use some of the additional aid they’ve received to look for additional space,” he said. “There are some local and national businesses looking to grow their footprint this year in Iowa.”
Office spaces are also in a transition period, with companies deciding to either expand to accommodate more social distancing, or downsize due to fewer workers, Corron said.
Crowley said the density of office spaces is likely to change but it’s hard to predict whether they’ll expand or shrink based on the mixed reactions of employees.
“Some employees come back in and feel uncomfortable,” he said. “The reactions are so mixed and interspersed, it’s hard to find a trend … No companies are really growing yet. We do think a lot of people will downsize or reconfigure their space as lease terms are up.”
Crowley said he’s now seeing up to 175 square feet of office space per employee. The average before COVID was closer to 50 square feet, he said.
Because there is more certainty in the market than there has been in more than a year, this summer is a better time to dive into the commercial real estate market, Corron said. The market overall, he said, is opportunistic this summer.
“There was so much uncertainty last year that kept a lot of people on the sideline because they didn’t want to make that jump,” he said. “Now, we have enough certainty in the market to see people take that leap of faith. Right now is the time to put plans into motion.”
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