Julius Linton’s job as a shuttle bus driver in one of metro Atlanta’s biggest office developments has become eerily quiet in the last few months.
There’s no real rush hour around Sandy Springs’ 63-acre Concourse. The parking decks are mostly empty. No long lines of riders wait for Linton to give them a lift to Perimeter Mall or a MARTA station. At quitting time, only a scattering of workers emerge from the high-rise King and Queen towers. Linton picks up only about seven riders throughout his six-hour shift.
It’s OK, he said. “I love being around myself.”
Plenty of frontline workers have worked outside their homes throughout the coronavirus pandemic. More lately, shoppers are hitting stores and filling parking lots. Some diners are back in sit-down restaurants, keeping waiters employed. Hair cutters are cutting. Dentists are drilling. Manufacturers are making.
Yet much of metro Atlanta’s 320 million square feet of towers and office parks remains remarkably lonely. Nearly two months after the state’s shelter-in-place order ended, there’s little discernible rush to abandon teleworking and fully reincarnate corporate office life. And some plans for partial returns have recently been delayed.
Some office workers who had been working from home after the coronavirus struck Georgia in mid-March have been trickling back to corporate property in recent weeks. And more are expected to file in later this summer. But many are increasingly being told that they won’t need to be back at company work stations for months to come, even after the New Year, at the earliest.
Gathering hundreds or thousands of workers into buildings while maintaining new public health standards is a complex undertaking full of uncertainties. The pressure to make that leap is lessened by what employers describe as a surprisingly smooth transition to teleworking, Zoom and Microsoft Team meetings, stalled business travel and work from home.
With workers who are back in offices, the words ghost town and eerie come up often, whether in the suburbs or intown. A law firm employee at One Atlantic Center in Midtown said that in the last month of going to work at the 50-story tower, people are so sparse that he’s only twice had anyone else ride in an elevator with him. Both times it was just one other person. Others say they no longer have to hunt for parking spaces.
Duriya Farooqui, president of Atlanta-based Point A Center for Supply Chain Innovation, recently convened a meeting with about a dozen companies. Most, she said, expected to have 10% to 50% of their staffs back in corporate offices by the end of July. But for the majority, it will be August or September before they reach 50%, about the max most think can accommodate social distancing. Even those plans are fluid and could be delayed. She noted the discussions were held before a recent rise in Georgia coronavirus cases.
Many companies in metro Atlanta plan to have about 50% of their workers back in offices sometime in the second half of this year, estimated Ken Ashley, executive director for commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.
In the meantime, life inside some office parks has slowed to a crawl. Brent Allsup and most of his co-workers are back at a law firm in the Concourse’s Queen building near where I-285 and Georgia 400 meet. But he estimates that only a tenth of the Concourse’s normal labor pool is on site with them.
“You could walk out of the building at 5 and be the only person, where before it use to be a herd of people,” Allsup said.
And business has plummeted by 95% at an auto-detailing business he owns inside one of the Concourse’s parking decks. Instead of working on eight to 15 cars a day, it’s getting just a couple in each of the two days a week it is now open.
Many are wary of returning to offices. A worker at a Midtown firm stood alone waiting for a bus back to the suburbs on a recent Friday. She said she had just finished her first week back in the office but decided the risk of infecting her mother, who lives with her, is too great. She plans to stick with working from home for now. She praised her employer for being flexible.
It’s not an option for many frontline workers who can’t do their jobs remotely on a laptop and phone. About 42% of workers surveyed by Gallup earlier this month said they always work remotely to avoid the virus. Another 23% said they sometimes do.
Some companies around metro Atlanta are farther along in their return than others. Equifax and Global Payments set plans for thousands of locals to return to offices earlier this month. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta said it expects all its non-clinical support staff working simultaneously in offices by the end of June, with mask use required in all public areas.
In Cobb, Genuine Parts started with a phased-in return, but now has called back virtually all its headquarters employees, splitting them into two teams that rotate in or out of the office each week. Most days, about 300 people are in the headquarters at any one time, down from 800 before the pandemic. The company planned to have the entire staff work in the office simultaneously by early July, but likely will hold off until at least early August, said Jim Neill, executive vice president for human resources.
Employees have their temperatures taken upon entry, with colored dots stuck on their corporate ID cards daily so they can avoid being rechecked if they go out for lunch. They must answer a series of questions about whether they’ve experienced certain symptoms of COVID-19.
Some hallways have been marked for only one-way travel. Vending machines, coffee machines, water fountains and the cafeteria were all closed initially, but have recently reopened. The cafeteria sells only prepackaged food and accepts only payments by card, not cash. Crews installed clear plastic barriers in some areas and set up cleaning stations. There are limits on how many people can be in bathrooms at one time.
Neill said he thinks people are generally following posted guidelines about social distancing. Mask use is encouraged, not required. While Neill said he sees more people wearing face coverings than not, some workers remain uncomfortable with colleagues going maskless around them.
Plenty of local companies are moving slower.
Many have yet to set firm timetables for a complete return. That includes companies from Coca-Cola to Doraville-based Serta Simmons Bedding and even some commercial real estate companies. Others, such as Mercedes-Benz’s North American headquarters and WarnerMedia, which employs 6,000 people locally including some at CNN, say it will likely be sometime after the new year.
There’s much to sort out before then. Like how to make the elevators safe and address narrow hallways, and whether to monitor employees for social distancing and masks. Add in uncertainty about when a vaccine will be widely available, employee concerns about childcare, questions about how to improve air handling systems and struggles with six-feet of separation in offices that in recent years trended to fewer square feet per person.
Elevator makers have tried to make their equipment more pandemic friendly. Thyssenkrupp, which put its North American headquarters in Cobb, said it is contemplating adding UV light to elevator systems that usually draw air from the elevator shaft. And some of the company’s elevators can be programmed to make trips that will limit the number of riders on board to encourage social distancing.
Then there are broader issues employers increasingly face about life beyond the pandemic, like how crucial are workplaces anyway for day-in-and-day-out work?
Fresh stresses to working from home could emerge over time. Culture and collaboration might slip as more workers are hired and expected to fit in without ever entering the office.
Some employees want a better separation between work and home life, said Josh Wilson, Atlanta office leader for human resources consulting firm Mercer. “They don’t want to get up and walk six steps and work in their house all day. They can’t turn it off.”
Still, Wilson expects increased flexibility from employers who see benefits for themselves and employees. About 20% of U.S. employers anticipate at least half of their employees will be working from home post-pandemic, according to a recent Mercer survey. Just 4% of employers said that was the case prior to the outbreak.
Kevin Greiner, chief executive of Cobb-based Gas South, plans to tell employees they can work remotely at least through the end of 2020.
“This grand experiment has massively changed our perceptions of what the right mix of working from home and working from the office is,” he said.
The natural gas marketer instituted a mandatory work-from-home policy in March for office staff.
Since then, productivity is up. Remote training wasn’t the challenge Greiner thought it would be. Employees aren’t late to work because of traffic. Hiring has gone smoothly with online interviews. Teams are holding happy hour gatherings virtually. The CEO’s early worries that the company’s culture would slip have yet to materialize.
In the past week he allowed some to return to company offices if they chose to, with HR approval. That was after surveying Gas South’s 225 employees. About three fourths said they don’t want to come back at least through the end of the summer. Just three workers expressed interest in being in the office full time.
Workers are now allowed to come in on a rotating schedule, with no more than about 12% of the staff in at any time, because space is too confined to bring the entire staff back and still maintain six feet of social distancing.
That’s more time for life to stay slow inside metro Atlanta’s offices.
Linton, the shuttle bus driver at the Concourse, listens to music. Plays golf and Major League Baseball apps on his phone. And, best of all, he said he has an easy commute home. “No stress. No worry.”
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