Now that everyone is accustomed to working from home, it’s time to start talking about heading back into the office.

A survey by the The Boulos Co., a Portland commercial real estate firm, found that executives at about a third of the Maine firms it contacted expect workers to be back in the office by early fall, although more than half of the 167 companies contacted said their plans remain up in the air. The survey was conducted online from September through November, using Boulos clients and subscribers to the company’s email newsletter.

More than 80 percent of the firms that responded are located in downtown Portland or the Greater Portland area. They range in size from those with up to 10 employees – about 20 percent of the respondents – to those with more than 1,000 employees, which represented about 13 percent of the total. The biggest group, companies with 101 to 1,000 employees, made up about 25 percent of the respondents.

Most Maine companies that could do so shifted to a work-from-home model in March, and deciding when to shift back is difficult, said Christopher Stephenson, vice president of operations and marketing for Boulos.

“It’s not a simple question for anybody,” Stephenson said, explaining why a slight majority answered “I don’t know” to a question about back-to-the-office plans. Most in that category said their plans to reopen offices depend on the state of the pandemic or when employees feel comfortable and safe. Some said they don’t have plans to reopen their offices.

The MEMIC Group, Maine’s largest workers’ compensation insurer, is in the “don’t know” category, said Catherine Lamson, senior vice president and chief administrative officer.

The company went 100 percent remote on March 16, Lamson said, although the firm’s Commercial Street office has since reopened for a few employees. She said workers who want to work at the office need to undergo training and follow strict mask-wearing, social-distancing and disinfecting protocols.

MEMIC is also limiting capacity of its office building to no more than 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels, although Lamson said that, in practice, the actual population is usually 15 percent or less.

A more complete return to the office isn’t imminent, she said.

“We’re looking to evaluate the situation as it comes up,” Lamson said, and the most recent decision this month was “not yet.” The next evaluation will take place in March, she said.

“We don’t want to demand that people come back,” she said. The company’s evaluations include factors such as the state of the pandemic and how quickly people are getting vaccinated, although MEMIC isn’t likely to require that employees get vaccinated before returning to the office, she said.

MEMIC expects that many of its workers may opt to continue working from home – about 20 percent of the firm’s 500 employees worked offsite before the pandemic, Lamson said.

“We were moving in that direction, and a lot of people don’t have to be in the office to do what they do,” she said, but the company has no plans to cut back on office space in the near future.

“We will have a seat for everyone when we determine it’s safe to go back to the office,” Lamson said, “(but) we don’t know how many people will want to come back.”

That jibes with the survey’s findings. Nearly 40 percent of the respondents said they expect up to 20 percent of workers will want to work from home on a permanent basis, but 70 percent said they expected to keep the same square footage of office space as before the pandemic.

“I think a lot of landlords are excited at that statistic,” Stephenson said.

A lot of firms are much more productive when employees are able to work face-to-face, or mask-to-mask, Stephenson said.

And, like schools, the experience working from home will make bad weather days a little easier to handle, said Nate Stevens, a Boulos partner and broker.

“Snow days are going to be much more productive than they used to be in the past,” Stevens said.

Systems Engineering doesn’t expect to reduce its office space, although the company owns its Portland offices, so no landlord’s spirits will be lifted, said Matt McGrath, president and chief executive of the IT services provider.

“We’re not in a rush to get back,” McGrath said, and the firm is likely to continue some practices it has developed so workers who want to continue to work from home have that option, even if they still come into the office from time to time.

“Our plan is to have a home,” McGrath said, even if all the offices aren’t occupied all the time.

Systems Engineering’s 160 employees were pretty well set up to work from home when the pandemic hit, he said, although some adjustments had to be made.

“We had to sharpen that pencil a little bit” to work out any kinks, McGrath said, and there have been some side benefits to the routine.

“We’re super punctual starting the day, starting meetings, ending meetings,” he said. And, while employees “tend to be really generous with their time,” McGrath said, many are finding a better work-life balance with commutes and long days spent at the office a thing of the past, at least for now.

SMRT, a Portland-based architecture and engineering firm, is using a hybrid model, mixing working from home with working in the office, said Ellen Belknap, president of the company.

“It’s a highly fluid environment,” she said. SMRT’s offices were closed until mid-June, but the company has determined that in-person collaboration was important for workers and clients, so it has partially reopened the office.

“We thrive on throwing drawings on the wall and grabbing markers,” she said, and shifting to online meetings has been a difficult adjustment for employees accustomed to working shoulder-to-shoulder.

Currently about 20 to 30 percent of the firm’s employees work at the office, she said, but that number varies from week to week.

“We’ve intentionally not set a fixed policy on coming back to work,” she said. “There is a huge benefit to being together, but there’s also a huge benefit to providing flexibility and choice.”

Belknap said she and others at the firm have found that the little things, like water cooler conversations, are more important than they might have seemed before the pandemic.

“It’s that kind of thing that people really miss,” she said. “Isolation has been the biggest downside to COVID for us.”

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