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White collar workplaces sit empty, except for pockets of resistance, across the Portland metro area

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The office coffee tastes the same, but this pot is only for one. The office used to be a compulsory home-away-from-home. You had to go in, you had to commute, you had to look busy to get your check. It was a place to work, network, brainstorm, gossip, banter and mingle with your unchosen family.

COVID-19 put paid to that.

Work from home (WFH) became a way of life for anyone who doesn't work with their hands or directly with people, and many folks haven't seen their cubicle since March.

But some are enjoying the pleasure of slinking in to a quiet, empty office and getting some work done. Hey, if you can stay 6 feet apart, it's not a health risk, right?

We talked to three Portlanders who are still punching the clock, drinking the coffee and fiddling with the printer. And they're loving it.

Colleen Bastendorff

SUBMITTED - Colleen Bastendorff is programs and development manager at the American Institute of Architects.The programs and development manager at the American Institute of Architects, Colleen Bastendorff, had a pleasant summer of strolling into their Pearl District office from her home a few blocks away. The old brick building has high ceilings and cool furniture, as well as a sweet kitchen, movie screen and sound system. The space is used as a gallery for showing off architectural designs, and as a classroom for hosting architects who, pre-Zoom, did their continuing education classes there.

Bastendorff found she could get a lot done in her back office in the silence — more than she could at home.

"It's just easier for me to focus and I just kept that routine," she said. "We have comfortable chairs, we have adjustable desks."

The office-sitting began in a blur. "I think it was in April. I remember was going to go on a 30-day trek, the El Camino in Northern Spain, with my son, but that got cancelled," she said.

With two staff in Portland and two in Eugene, they got used to remote working. Architects being early adopters, all their files already were in the cloud and she could work from any screen with good Wi-Fi.

Since it turned cold she's been going in less often. Would she go back to the office full-time?

"Probably part time. There's no real need to be there. Other than I do a drive-by to make sure that it's OK. It's completely like a second home."

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Joseph McDonald is an attorney at Smith McDonald Vaught & Rudolph in the Standard Plaza building at 1100 S.W. 6th Ave.Joseph McDonald

Joseph McDonald is an attorney in a law firm Smith McDonald Vaught & Rudolph LLP in the Standard Plaza building at 1100 S.W. Sixth Ave. There are four lawyers and three support staff. No one else has to come in to the office, but McDonald does.

"Standard Insurance have been out since March, there's a chain link fence around the building," McDonald said. "Every day I walk around downtown, like I have for 30 years. It's a ghost town, everything's boarded up, so it's pretty bizarre."

He started out working remotely, from home. Then felt the pull of the office. It can be lonely, though.

"There's a there's a guy in office next to us, he's in and out," McDonald said. "Then McEwen Gisvold is on the 16th floor, but I don't see those guys in the elevator any more, they must be working remotely."

But McDonald's work does involve face-to-face meetings. He does a lot of estate planning (wills), which requires a notary or witness and two people to sign the affidavit. In Oregon, they haven't allowed that to go on remotely even in the pandemic, to prevent fraud.

The firm is busy — with so much death in the news, it's making older people think about their wills. Normally they drag their feet.

"People start to think about it, they say 'Draft something' then they go on vacation, they think about something else other than dying," McDonald said. "It's not unusual we have someone we haven't heard from for six months. Boy, once the pandemic started, everybody got started, 'Let's get this finalized!' So probably a couple of times a week I have to drag some poor citizens into this office."

He doesn't have to come in as often as he used to, but he'd like to. One partner comes in once per week. Another works totally remote.

"We can access a lot of our files on computer, but not all of them," he said. "Sometimes we have to find a hard file. We made a schedule with the staff so we syncopate. The office is large enough that we're pretty far away from each other, 20 feet. And we all wear masks in the office.

"I think there's going to be some long-term depressed impact down here," McDonald said. "I'd be happy if it went right back to where it was before the switch. But I'm not changing my working lifestyle for anyone. I'm an old-school guy."

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - David Keys is chairman and managing director of Norris & Stevens. Timothy Mitchell

Timothy Mitchell is president of Norris & Stevens Inc. a commercial real estate and property management firm. Some days he's the only guy in the office in the Standard Insurance Center, 900 S.W. Fifth Ave. From the 17th floor, he can look up and down the avenues and, some days, see barely any movement.

Mitchell still goes to his office at Southwest Salmon Street and Fifth Avenue every day. Only about five of the Portland staff come in, out of 75, on alternate days, so they are widely spread out.

"I come in and write the checks," he said, distilling his COVID-19-era work day to the basics.

He says downtown "Feels pretty lifeless without office workers. Especially for a group like ours, that was involved with managing properties downtown. If you just want to get outside to get fresh air and grab a sandwich or something like that, it's becoming more and more difficult."

If COVID-19 is contained and the economy reopens in 2021, will companies still staff their downtown offices?

"I think it's going to be an interesting next couple of years, especially for those leases that are coming up right now," Mitchell said. "No. 1: People want downtown. And No. 2: Can we allow these jobs to work remotely?

"A lot of people are like, when can we come back? Some of my brokers ask if they can come in, but just for a half day. I say 'Yes, wear your mask, keep your distance, do all the right things.'"

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Many downtown office towers sit empty in Portland, but holdouts remain.

Survey says:

In a 2020 survey of 126 companies, commercial real estate form CBRE found that 70% of respondents indicated that some portion of their workforce will be allowed to work remotely full-time, and 61% said at least part-time.

There is plenty of office space in Portland and suddenly no great demand. According to a report by commercial real estate firm CBRE, Portland office vacancy ended the first half of 2020 at 12.3%. Now total office availability is 15.5%. The suburban market recorded a 10.4% vacancy while the Downtown area's vacancy rate was 14.1%.

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Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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