Staff will need coaxing with perks, benefits, safety and culture to come back to the Portland office, especially in trash-strewn downtown.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Downtown Portland office workers wonder what will come.

In a Zoom meeting Wednesday June 30, a panel of Portland Business Alliance members discussed the return to in-person work. The focus was on white collar or office work, everything that can be done remotely by phone and computer from customer service to executive management.

All the speakers cautioned that they are hearing that few people want to go back to being 100 percent in the office, five days a week. The subject was Humanizing your Reopen Plan.

Pat Welch, Co-Founder and CEO of recruitment firm Boly:Welch, said that there would be a slow return to the workplace.

"A slow roll back feels most considerate," Welch said. "We left the office very abruptly. But we owe it to everyone to make a more gentle return."

The strong employment market was also cited as a factor, and the advantage is with the job seeker rather than the employer. Welch said she sees demand for essential workers right now, from healthcare to construction, and they have an advantage. "Turnover and retention will be an issue if employers are too rigid. Top candidates are in demand, and they have new options." She cautioned hiring managers, "Don't be rigid, cherish those workers that you have."

Flexibility is queen

Serilda Summers-McGee, Founder and CEO of Workplace Change, agreed with Welch and stressed the hybrid model should be here to stay. In her firm they hear all day about the challenges between management and the workforce. She hears managers are eager to get people back, "butts in seats 50 hours a week," but people are not.

"People have families, people have aging parents, a lot of families actually merged during COVID so they can help with the kids. I have a six-year-old and an 11-year-old and it was tough. Grandma and Granddad just came through. There are pets that we should take into consideration and folks who contracted COVID during this time and are still not at 100%."

She stressed that the leadership needs to improve the technology to let people work from two desks, home and the office.

"Flexibility is king, or queen, right now."

Noting the strong job market, Summers-McGee said "You can find a job anywhere, especially if you are underrepresented. Highly decorated, lots of education, person of color, woman in tech, you can go anywhere in the world. So the question becomes, why would they choose your company?"

Just that morning she saw a sign for a chef job with signing bonus of $1,000. "We'll give you $1,000 to just come in here and make some steaks for us please. It is crazy out there!"

But she reminded the Zoom that in World War II, women were incentivized to fill men's jobs with childcare and benefits, but after the war those benefits vanished and men were given the jobs back. She cautioned people to hang on to their COVID and post-COVID benefits.

And employers should maintain the new abstract benefits: "How we create community, keep people feeling seen, not just default to the people were are most inclined to communicate with."

Soft launches

Kimberly Branam, Executive Director of Prosper Portland, said her office is having a July 6 soft reopening by invite, then will have a hybrid system when the schools go back. About 33% of people have been able to work from home, 23% were hybrid but 44% never worked from home, such as those doing manual work, manufacturing, healthcare, social work and hospitality. "That can create some challenges across culture," Branam said. "We can support folks who have enjoyed working from home, while also acknowledging that there have been different experiences."

Branam pointed out that analysis of LinkedIn showed that people are moving from restaurant and hospitality jobs to jobs you can do from home, like data entry and business development (sales).

Lawyer Andrew Schpak, Co-Managing Partner at Barran Liebman, reminded people that there are new laws, the federal law called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and changes to the Oregon Family Leave Act, whereby parents can take protected medical leave to care for kids when school is closed by a pandemic.

"Employers should bear in mind that there may be legal obligations to accommodate the need to be out for periods of time…. being clear about what you expect from your workers, providing a timeline for them to plan in terms of physically being back in the city or in the office."

Welch added that managers will have to talk to staff about productivity, as some seem more productive at home but miss out on work culture.

Culture club

Talk of culture sparked some excited discussion about what makes work worth showing up for.

Schpak, the lawyer, said "One of the biggest things is to make it fun and welcoming for people to come back, with group lunches, coffee carts, happy hours. Small gestures go a long way right now. For a lot of people, the best part about being back in the office is the opportunity to interact with coworkers." He said managers should work on this.

"The more you presented yourself as a culture-based organization before, the more you need to be focused on what that means post pandemic."

Welch agreed. "They don't want to work for your mutual goal of productivity. They want camaraderie, to collaborate, be inspired and feel a purpose. That is magnified when we are part of a whole."

She said at Boly:Welch they make the workplace compelling by allowing dogs and having a kids room. "My 93-year-old mother comes in, and babies can come in up to six months. Employers will do best if they balance productivity with passion and purpose."

Branam added that local businesses relied on Prosper Portland and said it was part of the recovery that people now go out to lunch. "Show businesses some love, it's been a tough year."

Summers-McGee said that culture can't make a toxic work place bearable.

"You can put in all the snack bars and flexibility but if the environment is riddled with micro aggressions, if there is low transparency, low trust, that is going to seep away from your growth. Managers and leaders have to think about adapting how they lead this workforce, because today's workforce is vocal. They know what they want, they are fearless, and they vote with their feet."


A question from a listener about downtown drew the discussion sideways into venting about the amount of garbage on Portland's streets, suggesting downtown is still a questionable destination, not just for tourists, but for workers too.

Branam of Prosper Portland said it would take a public private partnership to clean up the city, and that 1,500 volunteers have picked up trash with SOLV.

Summers-McGee said that downtown is looking better in the last month, but her neighborhood, Northeast, is still messy.

"Marine Drive is epic! Have you been on Marine Drive? It is mayhem on this side of town. Where is the advocacy to get this side of town taken care of?"

Pat Welch said "I'm kind of appalled. We just lost the press that goes out nationally about us. They called the PGA (Cambia Portland Golf Classic) at Edgewater because of the garbage out there. Recruiting is much more challenging these days."

She said high taxes in Multnomah County already make it hard enough to attract talent and businesses.

"And you add garbage to it?" Welch said in exasperation.

"Lately, I have to say, it's tough. I think (Portland) will come back. And I come from Detroit so I have watched the implosion of a great city. I don't understand that the inability to pick up the garbage. I understand the homeless situation is very challenging and very difficult to resolve. But garbage everywhere?"

The speakers shared resources for readers facing back-to-work challenges:

Kaiser Permanente's Return to Work Playbook

Oregon OSHA's COVID Guidance and information and required trainings, plans, and forms

BOLI Technical Assistance line: 971-673-0824

Barran Liebman free alerts:

Prosper Portland business resources:

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.


- Volunteers sought for downtown Portland cleanup rally

- Business alliance sides with Friday’s peaceful protest