Office Space: Dead on Arrival or a New Frontier?

Tenants Are Getting a Crash Course in Remote Work’s Pluses and Minuses

Written by: Tamara Small | This article was originally published by Banker & Tradesman on October 4, 2020

As we approach the seven–month mark since the state of emergency was declared and office workers transitioned to Work from Home (WFH) overnight, many people are asking the same question: Will workers return to the office?  

A review of statistics paints a bleak picture. Office sublease space is at a record high. Occupancy rates in Boston and Cambridge remain in the single digits, while in the suburbs, it’s about a 10 percent occupancy rate. Companies that once said they would come back after Labor Day are now pushing tentative return dates out to January or well into 2021. We have seen the largest quarterly increase in vacancy rates since the fourth quarter of 2001.  

Given the uncertainty about what is to come, few transactions are happening. Rents are beginning to drop and short–term leases, once unheard of, are becoming much more common. Small businesses that support office workers from dry cleaners, to sandwich shops, to shoemakers remain closed. The economic impact cannot be overstated.  

Eric Rosengren, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, recently commented on the impact of so many empty office buildings.  

“It’s going to be very difficult for Massachusetts to fully recover until Boston fully recovers,” he said. “And a full recovery in Boston requires people to occupy the office buildings we have downtown.” 

However, we are now starting to see more people return, slowly, but surely, to their offices. And, when there is a vaccine, and children return to school and daycare, and commuters get back on public transit, as an industry we will have a unique opportunity to use what we have learned during this time to make offices better than ever. But what do we do in the meantime? 

While only 4 in 10 Americans can work from home, for those who have that privilege, the overnight transition to WFH was fairly seamless. Many companies who had never offered WFH as an option realized that work can, and will, get done remotely. Technology experts have become the glue that holds the office together – constantly adapting and innovating to accommodate cybersecurity, equity and access challenges.  

Tenants Discover Downsides 

There is a lot of positive that came out of this overnight shift. Several studies show that by eliminating commutes, some workers have gained invaluable personal time. Traffic congestion in our cities has improved dramatically, and many municipalities are expanding their alternative transit options, adding bike lanes and expanding walking paths to encourage outdoor activity. 

However, the longer WFH continues, the more we start to hear about its negative impacts.  

First, the boundaries between work and home have blurred. People are working more, and they are exhausted.  

Second, onboarding and mentorship are suffering. Bringing a new person onto a team that is completely remote is extremely challenging, as is mentoring a more junior employee or intern.  

Third, and most importantly, the collaboration and personal connections that shape successful office culture are difficult to replicate in a remote world. Remote work prevents learning by osmosis and diminishes opportunities for teamwork by eliminating those invaluable five-minute conversations that engage people across teams and disciplines. This has a significant impact on employees, particularly those new to the workforce.  

A recent study of employers by MassDOT/MBTA shows that very few companies plan to switch to WFH entirely when the world returns to “normal”:  52 percent of employers surveyed will send all employees back to the office;  41 percent will send some employees; and only 3 percent will remain full-time WFH.  

Embrace Office Innovation 

Clearly, employees will come back to the office, but work from home is here to stay. People want flexibility, but also some human interaction and collaboration. Are our office spaces ready to rise to the challenge? In short, yes. I predict employers will increasingly adopt a hybrid model that includes some remote and some in–person days. This means a total revision of what office space looks like, how it works, and how employees interact.   

A new and revived office sector will include an increased focus on wellness, collaboration, technology, and community. These components are critical as space becomes more fluid and flexible.  

At a recent NAIOP event, a panel of local experts shared what they are already beginning to see for the future of the office. Elizabeth Lowrey of Elkus Manfredi said, “the days of stack–and–pack are over.” Vickie Alani of CBT shared that we will likely see home offices remain dedicated spaces for focused work, while office spaces will be designed to enable remote and in–person collaboration. Kimberly Smith of Knoll focused on the enhanced role of technology to ensure that people at home and at the office “have an equitable experience in their office interactions.” And moderator Lauren Vecchione of Colliers Boston summed it up with the following statement: “If you take anything away from the discussion today, it should be that employees will come back to the office.” 

So, while the next few months may be a challenge, now is not the time to ring the death knell for the office sector. Instead, it’s time for CRE to embrace innovation and give the people what they want – a new and improved office for the next generation, today.

COVID-19 Update: Boston Announces Office Reopening Framework

Today, Mayor Marty Walsh announced a new framework for all office spaces located within Boston. Starting June 1, office spaces located within the City of Boston will be required to limit capacity to no more than 25 percent of the maximum occupancy level during phase 1. This framework is in place as an operational recommendation to be used as a reference in line with Federal and State-wide mandates.

These operational recommendations apply to operations during Phase 1 of the Commonwealth’s phased reopening plan, and are subject to revision and modification during subsequent phases or as necessitated by public health considerations. The City’s operational recommendations include, but are not limited to:

  • Identify and clearly communicate a workplace coordinator who will be responsible for COVID-19 and the impact to the workplace.
  • Providing personal protective gear for any employee whose job functions requires it, as identified in the hazard assessment, including training on how to put on and remove equipment safely.
  • Limiting the number of people in an elevator at a time to no more than four. All individuals must wear face coverings in elevators, except where unsafe due to medical condition or disability.
  • Stair usage should be limited to one direction (down) except in cases of emergency.
  • Regular sanitization of handrails, buttons, door handles and other high-touch frequency areas.
  • Establish accommodation and leave policies for employees that are consistent with federal standards.

We encourage all of our members and member-organizations to review the City’s framework. These operational recommendations incorporate the Commonwealth’s Sector Specific Workplace Safety Standards for Office Spaces and supplement them with recommendations based on guidance from the CDC, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and industry associations to offer best practices for preparing and returning to the physical workplace, preparing your workforce, and ensuring continuity of operations. NAIOP presented to the City regarding Industry Best Practices and we are pleased to see that many of our recommendations have been incorporated into this guidance.

The Mayor has made it very clear that the City hope’s employees who can work from home continue to do so throughout this recovery in order to limit potential exposure and allow for a successful and resilient reopening.

NAIOP will continue to advocate for policies, Executive Orders and legislation that address how this public health crisis is affecting real estate and overall economic development. We are working on numerous initiatives. Please feel free to reach out to CEO Tamara Small or Government Affairs Associate Anastasia Nicolaou if you have any questions.

COVID-19 Update: Boston Announces Incremental Start to Construction

On May 5, City of Boston announced it will be taking an incremental approach to broadening the allowable categories of construction. Effective May 5, all essential construction projects (as defined by the state, which currently means residential, hospitals, public schools, mixed use with residential, public works and construction related to COVID-19) with approved safety plans and signed affidavits as required under the COVID-19 Safety Policy for Construction will be authorized to prepare the site with project specific COVID-19 safety measures.

As of May 18, the City of Boston will allow a subset of essential construction projects on sites that meet specific criteria to commence (hospitals, public schools, 1-3 unit residential buildings, road and utility work or other outdoor/open-air work such as steel erection). On May 26, all essential construction projects as defined by the state may re-commence construction in adherence to safety plans.

At no time will the City of Boston permit any construction beyond what is allowed by the Commonwealth. DPW and ISD will continue to monitor and enforce the COVID-19 Safety Plans for Construction. In accordance with the signed affidavit, contractors acknowledge and agree that non-compliance with any requirements may result in suspension of termination of work in progress of revocation of the City’s permit for such work.

NAIOP will continue to advocate for policies, Executive Orders and legislation that address how this public health crisis is affecting real estate and overall economic development. We are working on numerous initiatives. Please feel free to reach out to CEO Tamara Small or Government Affairs Associate Anastasia Nicolaou if you have any questions.

COVID 19 Update: Eviction Legislation Before Senate, Clarity on Construction Moratoriums and Other Issues Affecting CRE

Construction Moratoriums and Guidance

In recent days, there has been a great deal of confusion over construction moratoriums at the state and local level. We hope the following summary, which reflects the latest information, provides some clarity.

State: On Tuesday, March 31, the Baker-Polito Administration updated the construction related guidance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The new guidance limits “essential” construction to housing and critical infrastructure activities. Under the revised list, private nonresidential construction is not considered essential (unless it falls within one of the specified exemptions). As of noon, April 1, only housing projects (including mixed use with housing, infrastructure projects and construction related to COVID-19 can proceed. On April 2, the state updated the FAQ page to answer questions on this issue. The state also issued supplemental guidelines to limit COVID-19 exposures on construction sites and additional guidance outlining the enforcement of COVID-19 safety guidelines. It specifically states that “for all private projects the primary enforcement responsibility rests with the city or town.”

Local: Boston, Somerville, Cambridge, and numerous other cities and towns have issued a halt to all construction until further notice. Companies should maintain the crews necessary to make sure sites are “safe and secure.”  On April 5, Mayor Walsh asked that even if a job is one of the few that is allowed to move forward under current guidelines, companies should consider shutting down. In addition, effective April 2, Cambridge issued its own construction guidance

Commercial and Residential Eviction Moratorium Legislation

On Thursday, April 2, the House passed H. 4615, An Act providing for a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the COVID-19 Emergency. The bill provides eviction moratoriums for both commercial and residential tenants. The bill is now before the Senate, where a vote is expected on April 9.

Property Tax Update

As part of Chapter 53 of the Acts of 2020, the municipal relief bill signed by Governor Baker on April 3, municipalities are allowed to extend the due date of quarterly taxes to June 1st.  
 
The City of Cambridge announced it is extending the due date for Second Half Real Estate and Property Tax bills until June 1, 2020. In addition, interest and other penalties on late payments made on Excise Tax and water/sewer bills with due dates after March 10, 2020 will be waived if payments are made before June 30, 2020. It is our understanding that this applies to both residential and commercial.
 
The City of Boston has extended the due date for property tax bills in Boston until June 1st to give residents more flexibility during the ongoing public health crisis caused by COVID-19. It is our understanding this only applies to residential.

BPDA Covid-19 Response

The BPDA is postponing all BPDA-hosted public meetings regarding Article 80 development projects and planning studies until further notice. While projects will continue to be reviewed internally by BPDA staff, the public review process for both Article 80 development projects and the BPDA’s planning studies is on hold until public meetings can be resumed. If you are a landlord or tenant of the BPDA’s housing program, please visit the BPDA’s housing page for information and resources. As the BPDA’s response to Covid-19 continues to evolve, please check this page or follow @bostonplans on Twitter for updated guidance.

COVID-19 Massachusetts Relief Fund

On April 6, Governor Charlie Baker and First Lady Lauren Baker announced the launch of the COVID-19 Massachusetts Relief Fund. It is designed to support organizations assisting Massachusetts’ most vulnerable residents, frontline health care workers, and other essential service providers.  Donations are needed and encouraged.
 

COVID-19 Shows Value of Collaboration and Local Leadership Massachusetts Has Come Together with Kindness and Common Purpose

By Tamara Small

This column first appeared in Banker and Tradesman on Apr 5, 2020

Uncharted territory. Those are the two words that seem to be used when anyone tries to describe our current COVID-19 world. Children are out of school, entire economic sectors have been decimated, the global and local economy is in freefall – and the end is unknown.   

As the unemployment numbers skyrocket and the number of people infected with COVID-19 continues to grow, it is difficult to find any positive news. However, here at NAIOP we’ve seen several local examples that we should all acknowledge and applaud.  

Public and PrivateSector Collaboration  

In Massachusetts, this pandemic is exposing the grace of who we are, as residents and businesses stand strong in the fight to save lives. We see this with the establishment of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Emergency Supply Hub. As it quickly became clear that demand was outpacing supply at many healthcare institutions, the private sector stepped up.  

The Massachusetts Biotech Council, Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, Conference of Boston Teaching Hospitals and Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council came together, launching the Supply Hub to bring additional supplies and resources to our state’s healthcare institutions so they could continue to test and treat patients with COVID-19 safely.  

In response to the call for donations, hundreds of companies from a wide range of sectors including janitorial companies, colleges, and construction firms stepped up to donate everything from masks and goggles to swabs and tubes. While we still have not caught up with demand, this effort made a dramatic impact and provided a streamlined way for businesses throughout the commonwealth to supplement the local and national supply chain. 

In another extraordinary example of community solidarity, the Boston Society of Architects has begun soliciting nominations for buildings, facilities or infrastructure that may be adapted to become alternative hospital sites. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health  has issued guidance to permit the use of alternative, acute inpatient care spaces to care for patients during this public health emergency. Working with cross disciple teams, the architecture, engineering and construction community is working with property owners to assist state government officials with identifying, evaluating, documenting, and retrofitting buildings or other facilities identified as viable hospital facilities. Preparing for the worst is an essential part of crisis planning – this work will save lives. 

Legislative Compromise  

The closure of non-essential businesses and the shutdown of most aspects of society have resulted in the need for executive orders and emergency legislation on a wide range of issues. Municipal governments have been particularly challenged since town halls are shuttered, Town Meetings are delayed, and annual budgets are uncertain at best. For real estate developers, navigating the permitting maze at the local level became more challenging as the permit application process, deadlines, and hearings became unclear.  

Responding to this new challenge, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, The Home Builders & Remodelers Association of MA and NAIOP Massachusetts – The Commercial Real Estate Development Association, worked together, drafting language that gave predictability and protections to municipalities and developers. As of this writing, the language, which is included in An Act to Address Challenges Faced by Municipalities and State Authorities Resulting from COVID-19, was passed by the House and Senate and is expected to be signed by Gov. Charlie Baker. 

Every day is a step forward, navigating a difficult path. As Massachusetts, and the world, continue to operate in today’s reality, it is important to remember that we are all in this together. 

This legislation provides necessary relief to cities and towns that, due to disruptions caused by the state of emergency, are struggling to process and hear permitting applications. At the same time, the bill balances the needs of residents and developers by ensuring that current permits are not impaired by the emergency declaration. No town or developer wants to see a project that has received local approvals become a blighted, abandoned site, and this language ensures that projects can get up and going as soon as this crisis ends.   

Examples of Leadership 

Finally, Gov. Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, legislators and all the hardworking staff who support them must be recognized. They have focused on protecting the most at-risk residents, addressed business, health and public safety challenges and provided comfort during this unprecedented time.  

Throughout the commonwealth, we have seen local community leaders follow this example. From local food banks to neighborhood groups, we have seen unprecedented kindness and grace as everyone works together to flatten the curve and save lives. Restaurants are providing free meals for students in need, essential grocery store workers are keeping our food systems open and, last but certainly not least, every person working in the health care sector is working tirelessly to save lives.  

Every day is a step forward, navigating a difficult path. As Massachusetts, and the world, continue to operate in today’s reality, it is important to remember that we are all in this together. As a former governor of Massachusetts once said, let our first instinct be kindness – and as Mayor Walsh said during his address to the city, there’s nothing we can’t do when we stand together.