As I approach my 30th year in the commercial real estate industry, I have been a witness to several unforeseen challenges – both good and bad –in our marketplace. From the Y2K scare and dot.com bubbles to 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, and the years of growth in between. But none of those experiences can compare to the disruption our industry has faced with the global COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown that we have all been living through.
There has been much discussion regarding whether we will see a “return to office”, and I have studied both sides.” Based upon my on-going conversations with clients, tenants, landlords, and fellow brokerage colleagues, my opinion is that a return to the office will occur. The question becomes When?
For those who question a return to the office, I offer the following reasons:
- In-Person Meetings – Human beings are by nature, social creatures. While we have all learned to continue our businesses via Zoom, Teams, and other technologies, no virtual platform can replace an in-person coffee, lunch, or presentation.
- Collaboration – So important for many industries, unscheduled collaboration with your peers cannot be replicated virtually. It just can’t. How many great ideas or initiatives have been started or advanced due to a “bump in” or “impromptu gathering” in a side conference room? There is no doubt that being physically separate has limited our ability to innovate through collaboration.
- Corporate Culture – An important aspect of employee retention and recruitment, companies have spent a tremendous amount of capital to create their individual culture that culminates in the physical space. Having a place creates a sense of belonging for employees and is paramount to their mental wellbeing.
- Training – Probably the biggest detriment to working remotely is the ability to train and mentor the next generation of leadership. This is true for any industry – especially an industry based upon relationships – such as commercial real estate. It is just nearly impossible to mentor and train effectively while trying to do so remotely.
- Production – While I have heard the sentiment that production levels “did not drop” with the onset of remote work, I have yet to see resources celebrate the “increase in production” with remote work. More often, I have seen and heard the opposite from my clients – that working remotely is just not as productive as it should be working together.
Now, I am not naive and implying that everything will soon return to “normal.” I believe that we are way past that point. When the return to the office does occur, things will most certainly be different.
- The densification of the office layout that we have seen over the past decade will be gone. Social distancing will be here to stay and will be incorporated into the office design and layout moving forward.
- Employers will become more flexible with work time. Let’s face it – the past year has taught us that we CAN work remotely (some of the time) and I believe that employers will have to offer the ability to do so on a more frequent basis as an amenity to their employees. Work schedules may shift from the standard “9 to 5”.
- Landlords will have to focus more attention on providing and promoting a safe working environment for their tenancy. We have already seen a move towards incorporating Well Building standards such as increased HVAC measures, touchless entry points, and cleaning specifications. Companies and their employees will need to feel safe – this will be paramount for an effective return to the office.
As for when this return to the office will occur, I truly believe it will be soon. As vaccines continue to be distributed (albeit, currently at a snail’s pace), the markets will settle, and perceptions will calm. People will feel safer and corporations will have the ability to make longer-term decisions when the uncertainty of this pandemic subsides.
To my fellow brokers, I say “Hang in there!” While we have all been extremely busy helping our clients navigate these murky waters, we are rounding the corner. While companies may not return to the “normal” of the pre-COVID environment, we will be back to more transactional work as we continue to find the right solutions for our clients’ real estate needs in a post-pandemic world.