Sartre might have thought hell was other people, but when it comes to bringing workers back to the office, existentialism is out and community is in.

Landlords and employers have tried everything to dissuade reluctant Americans from zooming in from their living rooms. But, according to panelists from bisnow‘s Chicago Tenant Wellness & Leasing Summit on June 28, not enough thought is given to building a community and the role of real estate in building it.

Return to the office has been a slow climb in Chicago, as evidenced by Kastle Systems’ Return to Work Barometer, which tracks key card swipes at office buildings. Although it has improved in recent weeks, with 41.9% of pre-pandemic figures back in place at least part of the week, it lags behind the national average of 44.2%.

Panelists said it’s clear that the climb from here cannot be achieved with the same strategies played out.

“We’re saying we’re trying to fulfill a human need with real estate, and the human need is community,” said Jack Kim, founding partner of KORE Investments.

“People don’t have it these days. We don’t have porches. We don’t go to churches and synagogues as much. We don’t have PTO meetings. We don’t have that community, so people crave it [and] so if we as owners can create that capability… that’s what people really want. They need this warm bodily interaction.

The past two-plus years have been a blow to office culture, but time away from proven office strategies has forced companies to reinvent how they can best meet the changing needs and demands of their employees. This means, the panelists said, a particular focus on building a strong community in the office. It also means employee well-being and health are no longer a luxury, but a necessity, they said, citing a Gallup poll that found about 70% of American workers were unengaged at their jobs.

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Jack Kim of KORE Investments, Jessica Brown of Sterling Bay, Scott Phillips of Global Workplace Solutions, Carrie Szarzynski of Hiffman National, Howard Meyer of Zeller and Tyler Kethcart of JLL Experience Management

This shift from a sterile office environment to a social one is largely driven by design. The days of dark office cubicles, solo workspaces and stale air are long gone. By providing maximum flexibility, tenants blur the lines between hotel and office, both operationally and aesthetically.

Global Workplace Solutions senior director Scott Phillips said it’s about making coming to the office an event and using space efficiently – that could mean expanding a gym where a unused conference room or optimize a coworking space to feel like a living room at home.

“It’s about having an outdoor space [employees] can sit outside and work, have food available to them…the flexibility of different spaces to sit in,” said Hiffman National Senior Vice President Carrie Szarzynski. “No one wants to sit at the same desk all day. They want to be able to go to a collaborative space, sit with their peers and have a conversation.”

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Mike Flanagan of Arch Amenities Group, Rafael Carreira of Riverside Investment & Development Company, Brian Atkinson of Hines, Benjamin Skelton of Cyclone Energy Group and Chet Kondas of 33 Realty.

The need for flexibility also extends to health and wellness facilities. The expansion of fitness centers, massage therapy spaces, break rooms, and lounge and cocktail areas helps attract and retain talent, as do services once reserved for executives.

“When you think about what people are asking for, it’s a space where they can do physiotherapy or massage therapy or specialized treatment on site,” Hines chief executive Brian Atkinson said. “It becomes a question of integrating well-being, of the whole person, of the whole employee.”

Both panels echoed that none of this is possible unless a strong feedback loop and cohesive conversation, facilitated by data and technology, happens with the whole office.

“One thing I think every employer should do is survey employees — every one of their employees in the Chicago office at every milestone,” said Jessica Brown, Sterling Bay’s leasing manager. “I think that kind of collaboration with the owner is important, but also the collaboration of the employer with the employee – that’s a real must.”