People who usually worked in offices adjusted quickly to hectic home environments and makeshift workspaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, surveys show that they’re satisfied to leave commutes and cubicles behind for good – or at least for most of a traditional work week. And that’s left a lot of once-bustling office space empty as lessors rethink just how much space they need and why.
“Vacancies are trending downward, but you go into these buildings, and it doesn’t seem like they’re occupied,” said Clark Lindsay, CEO of Pacific Program Management Group LLC, and moderator of a panel discussion at CRE.Converge.
“We’re in new territory,” said Craig Robinson, chief growth officer for Industrious. “Over the near term, there’s going to be some deep pain in the office sector. The restaurants and bars are full, but the offices are empty.”
A Worker’s Market
With unemployment at record lows, workers have more leverage over office polices; most want the option to come in just two to three times per week. What’s more, they say they are just as productive working from home – and the data backs them up.
But remote work also tends to inhibit interpersonal trust, short-circuit mentoring, and blur employees’ sense of organizational culture. There’s evidence that it can impede progress on major initiatives such as a product launch. And workers admit that they miss the collaborative environment an office provides.
The solution? Spaces designed to suit “how the end users’ teams operate and what they need to do,” said Siobhan Harold Fink, vice president of workplace consulting at Pacific Program Management Group LLC.
“It’s much more focused on human behavior [and] the needs of the individual,” Lindsay added.
Flexing on Space
As a result, clients are looking for flexible spaces and tenants that complement one another rather than committing to massive amounts of square footage. And some are willing to pay up to two-and-a-half times markets rate for shorter lease terms and ample amenities.
“If you don’t have flex in your building, there are a number of tenants who will not even consider you,” Robinson said. “They want buildings and spaces that are attractive and collaborative and interesting and engaging and inspiring.”
One defensive strategy a landlord might try is to take a floor and build out suites “just in case someone says they want flexibility,” Lindsay said. “Offense would be to act like a hotel developer and proactively recruit lessors to drive above-market rents.”
Landlords and investors can turn to data to help tenants forge a viable return-to-office strategy, panelists said, partnering with them on solutions that fit how people want to work while supporting corporate performance goals.
Landlords should use specific metrics to demonstrate the value of a space to tenants, said Ben Waber, president and cofounder of Humanyze, connecting the environment to corporate key performance indicators such as employee turnover and productivity.
“If I know that employees communicating 10% more leads to a percentage change in performance, what I would want from someone providing the space is to increase that metric,” Waber said. “If you can’t prove it does, why would I care about your space?”
But “bringing people to the office to make sure they’re working” is no reason to sign a lease, Waber noted. “If you ask people what their preferences are – how they want to work – you’re going to be expected to act on it. And if you’re not going to act on it, you shouldn’t ask.”
Selling the Space
Developers with a lot of underused office space need to figure out how to repurpose it, Lindsay said. “People don’t want to drive more than 10 minutes to go to work. There has definitely been a change in what employees are willing to do.”
If a tenant says, “I think I need about 30,000 square feet,” Robinson said, a landlord could lease the space and take the adjacent 20,000 square feet themselves so that the client could expand into it as needed and feel comfortable with their initial commitment.
To employers, an office lease it a bet that the space is going to meet employee needs and facilitate company success. “It’s not just about the deal itself,” said Harold Fink. “Understanding your tenant and where they’re going [will] give them the base they need from a lease perspective.”
Ian P. Murphy is a freelance writer and editor with more than 25 years of experience in association, business-to-business and consumer publications covering topics such as architecture, travel, education and marketing.