Milwaukee-area businesses eyeing Labor Day for mandatory return to the office

Posted at 12:45 PM, May 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-12 20:19:29-04

A new study by the Downtown Milwaukee Business Improvement District shows just about 20 percent of Milwaukee area’s office staff is back to in-person work, while the rest remain virtual at home. Business experts say that’s expected to change drastically starting next month.

Downtown Milwaukee has been incredibly quiet for the past 14 months, but a new survey of Milwaukee’s largest employers found that the number of in-person workers is expected to increase 200 percent by the end of the year.

Martice Scales has worked from home since March of 2020, and he says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I prefer virtually, and I have two young children and I do most of the childcare because my wife has to work in person,” he said.

Employees at a global staffing company called Aquent feel the same way. Erin Bloom says it’s led the company to do away with its office space at the City Center building in downtown Milwaukee.

“We made the strategic decision to let our leases lapse because we know through research and surveys that people really like the flexibility that they have working remotely,” she said.

But as vaccination rates climb and coronavirus cases decline, several of Milwaukee’s largest employers are eyeing an end to virtual work. Northwestern Mutual says hundreds of employees ‘opted in’ to return to its downtown tower beginning next month.

Manpower Group in downtown Milwaukee says it will slowly phase workers back to its headquarters. By mid-July, it estimates about 25 percent of employees to return to the office.

“We’ve reached out to employees and said, ‘hey, you’re welcome to start coming back as part of our soft open, test some of our new routines, some of our new hybrid work models’, and we’ve already had employees like so eager to come in, raising their hands to volunteer to be part of that experience,” said Kari Atkinson.

Manpower Group expects to use a hybrid work model when a majority of employees return, which is similar to what area school districts did with certain grade levels attending every other day. Atkinson says this model allows them to lease out 80,000 square feet of office space at its headquarters building to another employer.

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“We really took this as an opportunity to rethink everything and really look at our space,” she said. “How could we leverage it for potential other startups, community partners, other businesses looking to expand in the Milwaukee area.”

Tim Sheehy with the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce believes thousands of lost jobs will return when businesses inch closer to fully reopening around Labor Day.

“I think every employer we’ve talked to has said they are going to institute flexibility when they reopen, which means not everybody will be back in an office 5 days a week from 8 to 5,” Sheehy said.

An MMAC survey that included 73 of the city’s largest employers found that 112,000 Milwaukee area workers lost their jobs when the pandemic hit Wisconsin. Since then, the survey found about half of those jobs have returned.

"The companies don’t want to be the first ones back; they don’t want to make a decision on being the first to open up. They want to make a decision that’s right to open up,” Sheehy said.

A recent economic study showcased in The Economist that involved thousands of American office workers says the average employee would like to work from home nearly half the time. The survey found employers would prefer workers to have just one virtual day a week.

The Milwaukee Business Journal says offices will look a whole lot different when employees return. Mark Kass says businesses are already preparing their office spaces by spreading out work areas and adding precautions such as hand sanitizer stations. But Kass says he’s heard of very few businesses requiring employees to get vaccinated before they return.

“It’s really hard to do from a legal standpoint, so I just think we’re all going to assume in a sense that you haven’t been vaccinated and you’ve got to take the proper precautions,” Kass said.

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