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.