The social-distancing aspect of the coronavirus pandemic has rapidly introduced millions to remote work. While some might view it as a vast, high-velocity social experiment that could forever change our lives by eliminating the daily commute to the office, not all commercial real estate experts see it that way.
“I think the office is here to stay,” said Gregory May, executive vice president and West Region market leader for Newmark Knight Frank, during a recent webinar for NAIOP members. “But I also think there’s definitely going to be a percentage of people who will work remotely permanently.”
Pamela Westhoff, a partner in the real estate, land use and environmental practice group with the Sheppard Mullin law firm’s Los Angeles office, also expressed doubts about a secular shift to teleworking.
“Is everyone getting so proficient working at home that they won’t need to go back to their office? I doubt it,” she said. “Whoever says that doesn’t have kids at home.”
May said his first week of working remotely in March was “actually kind of fun.”
“I felt like I could wake up and I was in the office,” he said.
But that soon changed.
“I started realizing that I really missed the people,” he said. “I missed the collaboration, and I missed the opportunity to spend time in the office. I think we learn a lot in those environments. As much as we have found this to be fairly productive, there’s a big element that’s missing. It’s that interaction with people in the work environment.”
While May is a firm believer in the future of the physical office, he also thinks there will be new investments in collaborative technology to enhance the growth in teleworking. That will benefit workers in commercial real estate as well as other industries.
“As brokers, we’re used to working remotely,” he said. “About 90% of our day is spent out of the office or in our cars.”
New Designs for Offices?
May says that when people do return to the office, the spaces will probably look somewhat different.
“There might be some density issues where they want to be separated a little more,” he said. “That could change the layout of office space.”
He also thinks that health-related changes could happen immediately, something Westhoff said she’s already seen take place.
“I worked in a building where someone tested positive for COVID-19,” she said. “The building owner gave us all the warnings. They told us the floor it was on. They told us that they cleaned and disinfected all public areas and common areas. They told us that the person was quarantined at home, and so was everyone they had worked with. That’s what you need to do. You have to give the assurance that everything’s been cleaned and disinfected and the person’s no longer in the office.”
Westhoff said the building owners also put in measures to ensure a clean and safe work environment.
“There was hand sanitizer everywhere,” she said. “Everybody going near the elevator bank was freaked out about touching the elevator buttons, so they actually had facilities staff with gloves pushing them. Until we figure out this immunity thing and get a vaccine, things like that are going to be essential.”
Westhoff emphasized that it’s crucial for building owners and managers to be as transparent as possible to tenants regarding any possible coronavirus exposure in their facilities.
“You have a duty of care to your occupants,” she said. “You need to tell people that there was a danger and what’s been done about it. You have to balance that with the privacy laws — and there are a lot of them — that protect a person who has a health condition. So our general advice has been that you do need to tell the people in the building that there has been a case.”
May said most landlords he’s seen are doing a great job sanitizing their buildings and prominently displaying social-distancing reminders and public health information.
“I think we’ll see more of that when we get back to work,” he said.
Looking ahead, May believes that there will be a gradual phase-in of workers returning to offices, possibly with staggered schedules or shifts.
“I think people will be a little apprehensive and a little concerned about density issues, but we have to look at China,” he said.
China is back to about 80% productivity, but many of the social distancing measures that began at the height of the pandemic are still firmly in place. For example, Eunice Yoon, CNBC’s Beijing bureau chief, reported in March that many elevators in China’s capital have tape on the floors to mark where passengers should stand for proper spacing. Reuters reported in March that IKEA stores in Beijing now only allow four people per elevator. And masks, hand sanitizer and spot temperature checks before entering facilities are ubiquitous.
Read the second part of this webinar recap: COVID-19 Puts Pressure on Office Owners, Tenants
Visit the NAIOP Response: COVID-19 page for critical resources and knowledge to support you now.
Trey Barrineau is the Managing Editor, Publications for NAIOP. In this role, he supervises day-to-day operations of Development magazine.