Flexibility.

It’s been a buzz word in recent years for today’s workforce as millennials have pushed against the traditional “9-to-5,” in-office workday.

Whether employers were on board with granting flexibility to workers before the pandemic, they have had no choice since office workplaces were forced to shut their doors and working from home became a new normal.

Tammy Cohen, founder and chief visionary officer for Marietta-based InfoMart, said all of her 141 employees have been working from home since March 22, and 30 of them were furloughed but maintain their benefits. The company conducts background checks, so the first project was to make sure employees had the same security protocols on their home computers as they had in the actual office.

“I’ve learned a great deal through all of this, and have really been surprised,” Cohen said. “Honestly, I never thought we could work remotely successfully. But our productivity numbers are actually higher these past few months. It’s been a really emotional thing to see your whole company turn and pivot so quickly, and to see that they love their jobs and are dedicated that much that they adapt and work even harder, like they have.”

Cohen said her leadership team conducted surveys with their employees on March 22, May 22 and last week to gauge their desire to either continue working from home or go back into the office. Cohen said in each of the surveys, a large majority said they loved working from home. That number has risen each time, while those wanting to go back to the office have dwindled and encompassed just 3% in the latest survey.

She said those who are wanting to go back to the office are mostly single people who live alone and miss the camaraderie of the office environment.

Starting the end of August, Cohen said they are going to offer a hybrid approach to employees who want to get back into the office and allow them to work in staggered shifts. But Cohen said they will allow those who continue to be uncomfortable with coming back into the physical office or want to continue to work from home to do just that.

Gov. Brian Kemp recently signed a bill that aims to shield businesses and health care facilities in Georgia from lawsuits brought by people who contract coronavirus and believe they contracted it at their place of business. The liability protections take effect immediately and will apply for anyone who contracts coronavirus until July 14, 2021.

Cobb Chamber of Commerce CEO Sharon Mason said the chamber members she has been hearing from, as well as the company executives who have shown interest in moving to Cobb, are beginning to offer a hybrid approach, in which employees work from home some days a week but are expected to come into the office on others.

“But they are doing it safely and providing flexibility to its employees, following reopening guidelines and phasing people in,” Mason said. She added that the Cobb Chamber itself has adopted the hybrid approach, staggering employees on days when they are expected to work from home and others when they are expected to be in the office. “I think with the transition for those offering the hybrid approach, it’s really worked for them because they can offer flexibility to their employees and then also have that office interaction and the meetings that really need to happen in-person.”

As for office spaces themselves, Mason said perspective companies haven’t scaled down on the amount of space they are seeking, but are looking to change the way the desks and offices are arranged.

“We have had more potential companies looking at Cobb during COVID than ever have before,” Mason said. “A lot of them have been from other states. During this type of crisis, I think companies have looked at how they are going to do business moving forward, and Georgia and Cobb in particular is very desirable. They have mostly been looking at the same amount of square footage, just how they are going to do it differently. Maybe they want more meeting spaces, or more areas to spread people out. A lot of them have been headquarter relocations, tech companies and biotech, especially.”

Mel Stowers, president of Marietta commercial real estate brokerage Stowers & Co., said business has actually been pretty good since the pandemic hit — at least on the buying side. The leasing side of his industry, though, not so much.

“There are a lot of people chasing investment deals,” Stowers said. “They’re tired of the stock market, tired of CDs (which pay no interest), so it’s a seller’s market from a commercial real estate point of view. But on the leasing side, everyone put most of the projects on hold in April. When people started working from home, it changed things. The small businesses have been OK because they’re able to social distance themselves in their own offices. But the corporate environment with the cubes is a little more problematic.”

Stowers, who has owned his company since 1980, said it’s difficult to predict what the future holds for office build-outs.

“One school of thought is that they’re going to need more space to spread everyone out, another says if people are good at working from home, you’re going to keep them working from home and won’t need as much space,” he said.

Stowers said the real signs will come in September and October, when people are starting to come back into the office and the Paycheck Protection Plan funding has run out. But even then, things could continue to change.

“If you’re talking about the person who is very motivated and wants to move up the ladder, those individuals will need to show up in the office,” Stowers explained. “You don’t get a lot of interest from executives if you’re sitting in front of a camera a few times a week. But if your office is a co-working environment, are you really going to want to sit 3 feet away from a bunch of people you don’t really know? I don’t think so. But when the PPP funding runs out in the fall, people and executives are really going to have to start thinking hard about these things.”

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