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Cleveland Workers Still Uncertain About What’s the New Normal

Three years after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, those in the Cleveland area are still uncertain about where employers will require their workers to be: in office, at home or a hybrid of the two.

Boxcast in east flats area of Cleveland usually has about 30 employees in its offices. Now, due to the coronavirus, only about 3 or 4 come to the office, the rest are working from home.
(David Petkiewicz/
(TNS) — To be or not to be in the office, that is — still — the question.

Even though it’s been almost three years since the COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to work from home, there still isn’t a clear answer.

Will workers keep splitting time between the office and home? Or will the five-day commute make a comeback? And do executives and workers want the same thing?

“There’s not a true new normal yet,” said SueAnn Naso, president and CEO of Staffing Solutions Enterprises based in Independence.

While there may not be definite answers, some of Greater Cleveland’s more prominent employers have made moves toward hybrid.

Medical Mutual decided to leave the downtown Rose building, opting to consolidate at its Brooklyn headquarters, at least in part, because most workers had a hybrid schedule.

University Hospitals is almost finished converting the UH Management Services Center in Shaker Heights into a hybrid workspace. Spokesman George Stamatis said many employees in departments like HR or finance can choose a hybrid schedule.

KeyBank left the Higbee Building and moved workers to offices in Key Tower and Brooklyn. Key is renovating both buildings to make them better for hybrid work, which the bank was embracing before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Progressive Insurance put five buildings in the eastern suburbs on the market as it consolidates. It reopened its offices a year ago and thousands of employees have started using them. Yet Chief Human Resources Officer Bill Clawson said the vast majority of employees continue to work remotely, at least part of the time.

“Work from anywhere is allowing us to provide employees with the flexibility they want, opens the door to great hires across the country, all while meeting the high expectations of our customers and agents,” Clawson said in a statement.

Other large employers have been reluctant to share their plans. Some just don’t have plans yet. Others are intentionally moving slowly, trying not to upset or lose workers.

The decision on hybrid work won’t just be made by large employers. It will ultimately be the decision of thousands of companies big and small.

The National Center for the Middle Market at Ohio State University surveyed 1,000 midsize companies in the U.S. in December and found mixed results.

A Split Decision

Of the 1,000 companies, 454 said their workforce was primarily in-person. Just 27 said they were primarily remote; 519 had a mix of both.

Data from the Employers’ Resource Council also shows that local companies are using a mix of in person, hybrid and even remote work.

According to the survey, 91 percent of employers had at least one employee who worked exclusively onsite, but 80 percent had employees who worked a hybrid schedule, and 52 percent had at least one employee who was fully remote.

Visits to downtown Cleveland offices in December were at 55 percent of what they were ahead of the pandemic, a dropoff from 62 percent in September, according to a report from the Downtown Cleveland Alliance.

Megan Kim, executive director of the Greater Cleveland Partnership’s small-business arm, COSE, said many employers shifted to hybrid work in 2022. But they haven’t made those changes permanent policies yet.

It’s still hard for employers to find workers and that is playing a major role in companies’ return-to-office plans, Kim said.

“They have to have some sort of hybrid or remote option in order to retain and draw in new talent,” Kim said.

100 Percent Onsite are Hardest Office Jobs to Fill

Staffing Solutions, a recruiting firm, mostly helps companies hire office workers. Naso said every candidate asks, “Is the job remote?”

“If it’s not the first question out of their mouth, it’s the second,” Naso said. “The 100 percent onsite positions are the hardest ones for us to fill.”

Naso said many companies are trying two or three days a week in the office. Very few do just one day. Some employers are trying four days, but it’s “very unpopular with candidates,” Naso said.

The Where Are the Workers survey, commissioned by the Fund for Our Economic Future, surveyed close to 5,000 working-age adults in Northeast Ohio in early 2022 and found similar sentiments.

Just 56.2 percent of workers surveyed at the time said they worked fully from an office or workplace, but only 36.7 percent of workers said they wanted to be in the workplace full-time, and 45.9 percent said they want to work fully or mostly from home.

Naso said some companies, like her own, have embraced hybrid and will keep it long term. Other employers haven’t bought in. If unemployment goes up, and job openings go down, at least some employers will change course.

“I would think companies that have not embraced hybrid or remote would start making the shift because they feel they’ve got a little more control to do that,” Naso said. “I think there are a significant number out there, though, that have bought in.”

The pendulum has swung as far as it can toward remote work and will keep swinging back toward a return to the office, said Nate Kelly, president and managing director of the CRESCO/ Cushman & Wakefield real estate brokerage firm.

“They (employers) want command and control,” Kelly said. “They want culture. They want to see their employees at work.”

Making Offices More Inviting

Kelly said large employers are redoing their offices and adding better furniture, nicer amenities, access to natural light and collaboration spaces — all to make the office a better place to work.

“If you have good space that employees want to be in, it’s a lot easier to be the employer that says we want you guys in the office,” Kelly said.

Andrew Coleman, a vice president at CBRE’s Cleveland office, said the firm’s data points to the same trend.

Higher-end office space is about 20 percent more expensive to rent, and on average, these buildings have 5 percent lower vacancy rate than nonprime buildings.

Coleman said many companies took short-term extensions on their lease during the pandemic, kicking the office-space question down the road. But many have now decided to keep space.

Usually, you need the same amount of space if not more if you want to implement a hybrid work model, Coleman said. So occupancy isn’t a great measure of hybrid versus being in-person.

Greater Cleveland’s office vacancy rate was 15.4 percent to end 2022, barely changed from 15.3 percent seen in early 2019, despite some larger companies giving up space.

Tim Dimoff, whose firm SACS Consulting helps companies with HR issues, said hybrid has been a safe transition for employers. But many are seeing the downside of less in person interactions.

“It is so crucial,” he said. “They’re finding out that that interaction is very important in the success and profits of the company.”

Two things are stopping companies from jumping into a return to the office with both feet first, Dimoff said.

One is losing workers. The other is creating a negative response culture. He said companies don’t want a “domino effect that causes their employees to be negative or discouraged about working for them.”

Nate Stansberry, managing director at Rust Belt Recruiting, said companies need to embrace hybrid work to win the talent war. His main clients are manufacturers.

He said the erosion of culture is real, so is the fear of people taking advantage of working from home. But a return to the office isn’t the best solution for those problems.

Stansberry said in a market where people have choices, jobs will go unfilled.

“You can’t have it both ways,” he said. “You can’t say “No one wants to work here” and then your policies be super ridged and antiquated.”

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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