Back to the office? Back to the workplace? Back to the work space at home?

With the coronavirus apparently decelerating, companies and businesses are pondering the direction they should take with employees who have been doing their jobs remotely for more than a year. And it’s a matter of not only where, but when.

Brandon Mendoza has his fingers on the pulse of this quandary, and the pulse tells him “office.”

“From everything I’m seeing, upward of 70 to 80% of the office workforce will be back in office regularly over the next six months,” said Mendoza, of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, a national trade association of commercial real estate developers, owners, investors and professionals.

The director of NAIOP’s Pittsburgh office added a caveat, however. “I’m not seeing all workers being in the office on the same day and at the same time. I can see three or four days in the workplace, with alternate schedules.”

Working remotely during this global crisis has been an experiment of sorts – one that numerous employers and employees believe to have been a success.

A lucrative success, perhaps. Bloomberg.com recently cited a study saying that work done remotely will raise economic productivity in the U.S. by 5%. The study attributes most of that increase to reduced commuting time.

But because of uncertainties, many companies have not yet formulated post-pandemic plans for their workforces – be it stay-at-home, return or a hybrid thereof.

Most local companies contacted by the Observer-Reporter for this story said they are waiting to develop timetables. These decisions ultimately will have an impact on commercial real estate properties, especially in Pittsburgh and other urban areas. People continuing to work remotely means some businesses will need less rental space, reducing their costs.

Jeff Kotula, president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, said “many companies are reevaluating their needs for office space. They are learning that many positions that were traditionally conducted out of a central office building can be effectively accomplished from a remote setting with equal efficiency.”

He said vacancy rates in Southpointe have “edged up and several large subleases have come on the market in the last several months.”

Mendoza said some companies are in the midst of the worksite decision-making process. “Human resources is speaking with workers virtually, seeing where they’re at. I see a lot of decision-making during the summer, to determine what businesses will be doing in the fall.

“I’m also seeing companies encouraging their employees to get the vaccine.”

He credited the vaccine rollout for accelerating the work-site decision process. “I’m pretty bullish,” Mendoza said. “Six months ago, I had a different view. I was thinking of a 2022 return (to offices). With the success of rollout so far, the trajectory is looking really positive.”

Three weeks ago, all employees were back in the huge facility housing AccuTrex Products, a contract manufacturer that was the first business to open in Southpointe in March 1993. But production workers, about 70% of the 150 employees, have been toiling there throughout the pandemic, said Mark Beichner, chief operating officer.

“We have a quarter-million-square-foot manufacturing facility with various types of equipment that can’t be taken home,” he said. Most of the remaining 30% of the workforce, essentially office administrators and management, began working remotely when the pandemic hit the region in March 2020.

“Even when we went remote, we were trying one week in, one week out, so we were not cross-contaminating,” Beichner said. “We had a lot of guys wearing multiple hats. Some had the opportunity to work from home and opted for here.”

He said that until March, AccuTrex was doing well in 2020. But because of a diminished demand for product, the company ended the year with a $600,000 operating loss. It then took a $700,000 hit the first quarter of this year.

“But we have a very strong financial portfolio and did not have to lay off one person” Beichner said. “We are starting to see a significant turnaround in our second quarter.”

Business Writer

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won eight individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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