Portland Building: Spiffed up, shiny and empty
The completely renovated Portland Building is as quiet as a tomb. No one knows whether it will ever be fully occupied again. Most City employees are expected to continue working from home into at least early 2021.
Back in February, after more than two years and nearly $200 million worth of work, about 1,700 employees were moving back into the City's largest office building. A public celebration for the reopening of the iconic downtown landmark was scheduled for March 19.
Instead, the celebration was canceled and all but a handful of the employees were told to work from home as the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit. Today, only about 30 city employees show up every day at the building, leaving its 14 floors of office space largely vacant and unused. New amenities sit unused, including a 15th floor dining and recreation room, a basement fitness center and locker room, and a huge bike parking room that replaced the underground garage.
A city work group now is struggling with whether — and how — to return employees to the building. The renovation project created open work spaces on most of the floors with desks set just a few feet apart. That violates current social distancing requirements, suggesting that only one employee eventually might be assigned to every pod of new desks and computers.
"We are taking a cautious approach that puts health and safety first, for both city employees and community members," said Laura Oppenheimer, the city's strategic communications manager.
But even before that, Mayor Ted Wheeler said on several occasions that requiring employees to work from home has proven unexpectedly beneficial. The city has about 7,600 employees and approximately 60% of them now are teleworking. Not only has productivity continued, Wheeler said, but the reduction in commuting has helped ease congestion and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
"We anticipate a higher rate of teleworking in the future than we saw in the past — even after the pandemic," Oppenheimer said. "Like most businesses, the City has learned a great deal about efficient and effective ways for employees to work from home."
According to Oppenheimer, the work team originally anticipated that employees would begin returning to the building in the fall before COVID-19 cases surged last month. On July 15, Portland Chief Administrative Officer Tom Rinehart emailed all city employees to say that most working from home are now expected to continue doing so until early next year.
"While we had hoped to begin bringing more staff back to worksites this fall in a modified fashion, our top priority is health and safety for employees, families and the community as a whole," Rinehart wrote.
Until a vaccine or cure for the novel coronavirus is discovered, public health officials warn against workers returning to their previous office settings without significant changes. New requirements call for maintaining six feet of distance between other workers, wearing masks in indoor public spaces, having multiple hand-sanitizing stations, constantly disinfecting common surfaces. Some businesses that have reopened are requiring masks everywhere indoors, limiting access to common spaces, and installing barriers between work stations — which would require interior spaces in the Portland Building to be redesigned again.
Not just a Portland problem
Although the public has yet to see it, the renovated Portland Building is an architectural and design triumph. The exterior looks the same, although every distinctive tile was removed, refinished and reinstalled over barriers to prevent water seepage. The interior has been transformed from a poorly designed work environment to a modernistic office space, with exposed concrete walls, enlarged windows and an air-conditioning system that finally works.
Portland is not the only local government that committed to new or upgraded office spaces before indoor working became a public health issue. For example, Multnomah County is completing work on a new $324.5 million Central Courthouse at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge that was designed before social distancing requirements. Metro signed a $15,306-per-month lease for additional office space to administer the $475 million open spaces ballot measure approved by voters at the November 2019 general election earlier this year. And Portland Public Schools has placed a $1.2 billion bond measure at the Nov. 3 general election to continue rebuilding schools that have not yet been redesigned for "hybrid" learning, in which only a limited number of students come to classes every day while maintaining social distancing requirements, while other classes are taught online.
But if wide-spread teleworking becomes permanent, Portland and other governments also could reduce the amount of privately owned space they currently are renting.
"We are now assessing lease renewals or new lease space requests to determine whether they are absolutely necessary," Oppenheimer said. "As leases expire, we will pursue every opportunity to relocate city staff into city-owned spaces. If fewer employees report to office spaces on a daily basis, the city can reduce its footprint and save money, advancing our climate action goals."
The new normal
Some government workers still are showing up at the City job sites. They include public safety employees, including police, fire, 911 dispatchers, and emergency managers.
Now, five months after the COVID-19 shutdown, Portland and other governments are still trying to figure out how to adjust to what could be the new normal for years to come. The number of employees who can eventually return to the Portland Building and other locations are expected to vary, depending on the reopening phase approved by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, which could include reversals if the virus surges again.
"Our guidance will recommend occupancy levels for city facilities during each phase of reopening, as defined by the state and advanced by Multnomah County," Oppenheimer said. "It will be up to individual city bureaus to determine how they meet our occupancy guidelines: who comes back to facilities, what proportion of the time, and how work schedules are staggered. Our guidelines will also specify a wide range of precautions, from enhanced cleaning to protocols for meetings to face covering requirements."
The city's work is informed in part by a survey of employees taken earlier this year. It found that 47% of the 2,393 respondent were worried they could contract COVID-19 at their regular workplace or expose someone in their family to the potentially deadly virus.
"It is not a worry about the potential city safety measures but a worry that my fellow city employees do not take COVID seriously enough to keep up with good hygiene practices and social distancing," one employee volunteered.
At the same time, it is unclear how much it will cost the city to maximize the benefits of teleworking. The employee survey revealed that many of those working from home need new and more equipment. Needs include larger monitors or multiple monitors (32%), ergonomic chairs (30%), ergonomic work stations (24%), and document scanners, printers or phone headsets (21%).
The city's Office of Management and Finance originally hoped to meet some of these needs with federal COVID-19 emergency response funds approved by Congress. But after discussing the $11.6 million request at a May 25 work session, the council decided to spend all the money trying to meet community needs, instead.
Multnomah County is engaged in a similar process. Only one-third of its employees are reporting to their work sites because their jobs are in public health and emergency management response, health clinics, food and housing services, shelters, corrections facilities, transportation, elections and public safety. Others are teleworking. A small committee has been convened to create minimum standards for social distancing and other guidelines in county buildings when they reopen.
"The county has not determined a timeline for other County employees who are currently teleworking to return to the workplace," Multnomah County Communications Director Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said. "The chair and leadership of the county have the safety of our employees and community as our priority. Departments are working with staff to ensure they have the resources they need to continue to telework effectively. And if employees need to be in the worksite due to the essential nature of their work, we are ensuring there are appropriate physical distancing measures in place and that staff are required to wear face coverings."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.