The Great Return to the Office is well underway in Maine.

A survey of 140 professionals around the state by The Boulos Co. found that more than 70 percent said their company’s offices, closed earlier in the pandemic, are now open. The percentage drops somewhat for larger companies – 56 percent of those with 101 or more employees say their offices are open.

But while the majority of companies said their offices are open, the survey also found that the nature of what that means is changing, said Christopher Stephenson, vice president of operations and marketing for the Portland commercial real estate company.

Stephenson said 36 percent of the executives surveyed said they had returned to, or planned to return to, a traditional office setup, with all or most employees working full time in the office. But three out of five said they will adopt some form of hybrid scheduling, with some or all workers spending at least part of their time working from home.

That trend emerged since The Boulos Co. did a similar survey that was conducted late last year, Stephenson said.

“Last year, a lot of the respondents were saying, ‘We don’t know’ or ‘We can’t determine that right now,'” Stephenson said, but only one in 20 said their plans were still undecided in the latest survey, taken in August and September, he said.


Stephenson said that growing certainty is reflected in the region’s office market, with many employers locking down their office spaces with longer-term leases. Earlier in the pandemic, he said, most lease renewals were for one-year terms, giving companies flexibility in determining their office needs.

Nate Stevens, a partner and broker at Boulos, said many of those companies are now opting to retain the same amount of space for the office, but layouts are changing. For instance, desks and offices may have moved to create more separation between work areas, he said, a response to the pandemic and health experts’ recommendation to increase social distancing between people to limit COVID-19 transmission.

Stevens said the movement toward shared workspaces – two or more people using the same desk or office on an alternating basis – has been stopped dead in its tracks by COVID-19 because of worries about the virus lingering on surfaces.

“That trend is getting killed by the pandemic,” he said.

Mark Adams, president of South Portland-based Sebago Technics, said his company’s offices reopened relatively quickly – in early summer 2020 – because the engineering and land development company set up strict safety protocols that they have adapted as expert advice has changed.

He said the company provided more sanitation options for workers, made sure people were at desks with walls separating them from other workers, installed better air filtration and scheduled more frequent cleaning.


“The office looked like a poster child for the CDC,” he said, and the company even brought in an expert from Central Maine Medical Center who had set up that hospital’s regimens for fighting the spread of the virus.

“She said it was as good as anything she’d seen,” Adams said, and they’ve found no cases in which the virus was likely to have spread at the office.

Adams said the company takes that record very seriously and, in addition to the physical changes at the office, Sebago Technics has adopted a hybrid schedule for some workers and also takes additional steps. For instance, after the Thanksgiving holiday, most workers worked remotely to limit the chance that a virus picked up at a family gathering could spread to workers back in the office.

Mark Adams, president of Sebago Technics in South Portland. Adams says the company, which is employee-owned, made vaccinations for its workers a priority. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But Adams said the business requires a lot of collaborating, and so Sebago Technics is taking that into account in the setup of new space the company is leasing to accommodate an expansion.

“There’s no substitute (for face-to-face collaboration),” he said. A worker at home, Adams said, is “not going to ask that quick question of the person next to you if you have to email or pick up the phone.”

Adams said that meant the company, which is employee-owned, made vaccinations for its workers a priority. Those who got them early received a cash bonus of $75, he said, and now the company is offering a drawing in which three winners will each get “hundreds of dollars” for more recent vaccinations or booster shots.


Stephenson said that kind of flexibility and adaptation are characteristics of most companies as the pandemic, hopefully, starts to wane. Many have said they view office amenities and the willingness to accommodate different work preferences as key factors in attracting new employees as the pandemic winds down.

Stephenson said that means that predictions, early in the pandemic, of large offices disappearing were overblown.

“The question then was, ‘Do we need our office?’ and the question now, ‘How do we use our office?’ ” he said.

The survey found that most companies aren’t planning any major physical changes to answer that second question.

A solid majority – 64 percent – said they don’t plan to change the size of the office as workers return. Asked if they plan to reduce the size of their office, 14 percent said yes, 5 percent said they are increasing the size, and three of the 140 respondents said they would no longer have an office.

And while 37 percent said health concerns – such as the ability to socially distance – were driving physical changes in their office space, 25 percent said they were making changes to enhance employee enjoyment, 19 percent said they reflected needs to improve workflow and productivity, and 8 percent said they represented adaptations that reflected increasing numbers of employees working remotely at least part of the time. For instance, that would mean there’s no longer a need for large meeting rooms, and the space can be put to better use, such as spreading out desks for social distancing.

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