After 18 months of working remotely, is the end of the office imminent?

The coronavirus has changed many aspects of our daily work environment. From remote working, home offices to Zoom meetings, the pandemic has presented businesses with new ways of operating and opportunities to rethink safety and comfort. While there have been numerous reports of the office’s disappearance, reality has shown otherwise.

“After the pandemic hit, we saw an immediate reaction from both sides of the Atlantic to send everyone home. The office buildings were empty except for a few janitors and a few people who had to come in to print or scan, ”says Martin Winstanley, investment and asset manager for HolualoaUS and European operations of. “This trend continued until the end of 2020. In January, people started getting vaccinated and worrying about staying home, and they slowly started going back to the office.”

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Mike Garlick, Executive Managing Director of Newmark, notes: “When the pandemic started, everyone was wondering, ‘What are we going to do with all these office buildings?’ It’s in the rear view. Obviously there will be an impact on the percentage of office space that becomes available, but I don’t think it will be as large as people initially thought.

Gain momentum

Rental transactions and new construction slowed from spring 2020, but the sector is accelerating. According to Necklaces‘Q2 2021 Greater Phoenix Office Market Report, office rental activity increased in 2021, and several projects are currently under construction totaling over 2 million square feet, with nearly 30% of the space pre-leased.

“We are seeing more and more leases signed,” says Amanda Zakharov, senior vice president of acquisitions at Strategic office partners. “The start of the year is when activity has started to return.”

In general, companies with a small number of employees have been the first to return to work in person, while large companies continue to look to industry leaders for advice. “A number of our tenants have said they wait to see what some of their peers are doing before making a decision,” Zakharov continues. “A lot of big companies took a stand one way or the other and made public announcements about what they were going to do.”

Nationally, investment bank JP Morgan made headlines in April 2021 when its CEO released a statement saying 10% of its US-based employees would work from home full time and others could continue to work remotely part-time – a move that would see the company offloading hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space in New York City. He abruptly reversed his decision a few weeks later, calling all the employees back to the office.

And while Pinterest pulled out of a deal in August 2020 to move into nearly 500,000 square feet of office space in San Francisco, Facebook, by contrast, signed a nearly 800,000 square foot lease in Manhattan in the middle. of the pandemic.

“If the office is really dead, why are companies like Facebook, which are above everyone else on what remote working looks like, taking all that space? Asks John Orsak, vice president of real estate development at Lincoln Property Company.

Zakharov comments: “It’s difficult. I don’t think anyone knows exactly what their workforce will want when they come back to boom. It’s going to be a lot of growing pains before you figure it out. “

Design strategy

The pandemic may have opened people’s eyes to technology and the ways of working outside the office, but for most companies, a full remote workforce is not sustainable. Executives cite leadership, collaboration and training, as well as company culture, as the main reasons for bringing employees back to the office.

“The future of the office will focus a little more on culture, whereas before we tended to focus on density,” notes Orsak.

Some companies allow staff rotation between office and home – a compromise that seems to satisfy both management and staff. “I think hybrid workplaces are going to be popular. It’s a smart idea, and it’s going to save money, ”Garlick says. “But being in the office remains an essential part of the employee-employer relationship. “

Others make adjustments to help their workers feel safer on site. This includes increasing the distance between offices – or abandoning offices altogether and replacing them with conference rooms and lounges – developing team suites and open meeting spaces, and adding or upgrading outdoor equipment.

“One of the most important things that will change is not the number of people who work in an office space, but rather the way that space is set up,” notes Winstanley. “Companies are going to look for more open offices where they can create a distance between employees. Movable partitions and flexible spaces will replace the permanent walls. The shared office scenario will go away because there were just too many people crammed into a small space. “

Samantha Parker, interior designer at Deutsch Architecture Group, agrees. She notes that while the office itself is not dead, the future could see the death of benches, a form of workstation in which employees sit side by side with only a tiny table partition, the where appropriate, between individual spaces.

“Benching was very popular for a few years because of the density that employers could get from an operational point of view of real estate,” she explains. “Given today’s social distancing needs and the focus on personal space, I think you’re going to see 6ft by 6ft cabins more and more becoming the norm. When we design new spaces, we use this imprint as a starting point to give people a sense of comfort and physical separation.

Healthy spaces, healthy workers

In addition to reconfiguring workstations, some companies are upgrading surfaces and devices to include contactless doors, switches and faucets; easy to clean and sterilize stone surfaces that can withstand a range of cleaners and wipes; and even high-tech air filtration systems.

“There were people who, at the height of the pandemic, were interested in ultraviolet lighting for HVAC systems,” says Parker. “It’s something that we usually see in the health care setting to kill bacteria in the air, but I don’t know of anyone who has acted on this because it’s cumbersome to take care of, especially if you have an existing space. ”

Parker notes that companies that want employees to return to the office must answer two important questions: How do they make their sanitary spaces and provide a good level of comfort for workers who fear getting sick? And how do they encourage people who find it more convenient to work from home to take advantage of the collaborative aspects and amenities that have been built into these spaces?

Deutsch recently completed its first WELL certified project. Similar to LEED, which focuses on the environmental impact and sustainability of a building, WELL protects employee health and the work environment. “Being able to say that you have a WELL-certified building, that it really is a healthy space to be in, will be a real advantage when it comes to attracting workers who might have increased concerns about it,” notes David Calcaterra, Director at Deutsch Architecture Group.

With so many changes and uncertainties, it’s easy to mourn the untimely death of the industry. But this isn’t the first time an obituary has been written for the office. Thirty years ago the famous management consultant Peter Drucker wrote: “Getting to work in the office is obsolete.

Garlick thinks people want to come back to the office, but it’s going to take time. “I think we’ll see the market start to gain momentum in 2022,” he predicts. “I don’t mean it’s going to be back to normal, but by the end of 2022, early 2023, we should be back at full speed.”

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