‘We’ve had a paradigm shift’: St. Louis businesses grapple with a new office environment | Local company
CLAYTON — Emily Lewis was more than ready to return to the office when her employer, accounting firm Ernst & Young, reopened in July after more than a year of working from home.
The auditor lacked collaborating with colleagues, and mentoring younger employees was harder to do via video conferencing.
“For my team, we have a great in-person dynamic that just doesn’t translate as well to Microsoft Teams,” Lewis, 26, said. “I’m a big fan of the office.”
Two years into the coronavirus pandemic, there is little consensus on what the new normal for American business is. But some companies, like Ernst & Young in Clayton, think they’ve found the solution with a hybrid work schedule, free meals and unassigned desks. Experts say the pandemic has ushered in a new era for business, in which every business will have to define where and how it works best.
“For me, this is the biggest change,” said Tom Ray, senior vice president of commercial real estate firm CBRE. “Companies are much more nimble in their thinking and more willing to experiment than before the pandemic.”
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Stay-at-home orders forced most companies to shift to remote working in March 2020. But the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines didn’t usher in the nationwide back-to-office movement that some had predicted. With the emergence of new variants of coronavirus and the rise of doubts, the office market across the country has become slow.
New data from commercial real estate firm JLL suggests businesses are regaining confidence in the office market. Rental volume across the country was 50% higher at the end of 2021 compared to the first quarter of the pandemic in 2020.
A “flight to quality” — where tenants are abandoning their older buildings for newer spaces — is driving much of this movement, said David Steinbach, JLL’s general manager in St. Louis.
“I think this will be the trend of the future,” Steinbach said. “Employers realize that their real estate costs are minimal compared to recruiting and retaining employees.”
These new buildings offer more attractive amenities and provide a “healthier” space, such as better ventilation systems and touchless elevators and doors. The new Creve Coeur Edge @ West office building, for example, was 89% leased in 2021 at rental rates 20% above the average market rate, said Ray of CBRE, which manages the property’s leasing.
Ernst & Young, which calls itself EY, wanted better technology integration for its 400 employees in Clayton, so it planned before the pandemic to move across the street to Centene Plaza, a new office skyscraper. on Forsyth Boulevard and Hanley Road that is part of health insurance company Centene Corp.’s nearly $1 billion campus development, said Jeff Hoelscher, managing partner of EY in St. Louis.
A hybrid schedule is now the norm — a big plus during EY’s peak season, when employees often have to work longer hours.
“We had a paradigm shift,” Hoelscher said. “I’m optimistic about how we merge old and new models.”
EY’s new digs offer a wall-sized Microsoft Surface computer, easy laptop hookups, among other tech perks. It also features trendy colors and materials, like glass doors, a marble kitchen top, and deep blue plush chairs. Snake plants are spread throughout the office, along with inspirational quotes and a brick wall painted with the St. Louis city flag.
Working from home was a big adjustment for Patrick Bishop, senior director of technology risk. But the former corporate road warrior learned to love the flexibility of working from home, where he could take a break to walk his dog or hit the treadmill for 30 minutes.
Now Bishop, 34, spends around two days a week in the EY office. The first day back, he said, was “fantastic”.
“Everyone has had a leak of COVID,” he said. “It was really good to see people…it was energizing.”