Returning to the Office

By on Mar 1, 2021 in News

The past year has been full of challenges from a traditional office perspective. These challenges have come in a series of phases ­­— initially sending employees home for an indefinite amount of time, implementing physical and tech upgrades to safely welcome workers and guests into offices, creating a potential hybrid working model to accommodate distancing in the workspace and now waiting on sufficient vaccine distribution that will encourage more employees to return to the office.

As we look at the progress we’ve made toward re-entering physical workspaces, there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to when occupancy will return to pre-COVID levels. On a recent Realcomm webinar, a group of panelists was asked when they thought their offices would return to some sort of normalcy. Their answers varied:

“When we hit 50% occupancy could vary, especially in California with its restrictions,” said Stuart Appley, managing director at CBRE. Appley suggested that around September he believes they could reach 30% capacity in office. CBRE Group is the largest commercial real estate services company in the U.S., and it employs a workforce of more than 100,000. Last fall, the firm formally changed its global headquarters address from California to Texas, where it already has a significant presence, handling property management, leasing and development services for Dallas and Fort Worth office space, as well as other commercial real estate assets.

Susan Gerock, CIO and vice president of IT at Washington REIT, says she’s hopeful to be at 50% occupancy “at some point in the fall, but many companies won’t even try to start bringing people back until September.”

Joe Rich, senior vice president at Related Companies, and Ilan Zachar, CTO at Carr Properties, both pushed their timelines out a bit further, with Zachar saying his customers believe the end of 2021 will bring some normalcy, while Rich admitted that a return to 100% occupancy is unlikely to happen at all in his opinion.

This is a significant cause for debate among industry leaders, because while there is a chance that 100% occupancy is a thing of the past, there is a wide range of guesses as to what working models will look like long term. Once the pandemic is “over” in terms of social restrictions, all signs point to the elimination of a standard 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday schedule. Whether it’s fewer hours or fewer days in office, employees who have the ability to fully function remotely will do so more often than they did before March 2020. “This trend was occurring before the pandemic, but this just accelerated it,” Rich said.

As Zachar mentioned, 25-30% of Carr Properties’ workforce was remote pre-COVID. Many companies were not worried about a drop in productivity when sending employees home, but were concerned about missing out on the tangible benefits to being in an office. Interpersonal relationships and hallway conversations cannot be duplicated on Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

In the same manner that the office will lose its appeal, city centers are losing their vibrancy when workers aren’t in the offices. With studies showing that New York City is below 20% office occupancy, Rich expressed concerns about how viable this is for businesses throughout Manhattan and other major hubs. “Our vibrancy is currently at risk,” he said. “We can’t work without public transport.” The concern over mass transit use is one of the principal factors affecting a slow return to physical workspaces. Dallas, Houston, Austin and Philadelphia have all seen significantly higher number of employees returning to office than New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C, the latter three much more dependent on mass transit usage.

Leveraging the right technology

The panel made a point to differentiate between two unique sets of technology. “COVID tech” are advances such as thermal scanning, virtual conferencing and contact tracing which became necessary due to the pandemic. The second category, tech to encourage people back into the office, includes all the touchless security advances which have been implemented over the past year, such as elevators programmed to take you directly to your floor, handwaving sensors to allow workers through a checkpoint and apps that show desk availability or occupancy in an office.

There have been remarkable advances in the technology designed to keep people safe in the office. Air quality sensors have evolved beyond filtration to removing airborne pathogens. These filters, as Zachar noted, can cover 600 square feet of space and are ideal for common areas such as gyms, locker rooms, cafeterias and conference rooms. Gerock also noted that scanning at entry points has gone beyond temperature checks and now includes mask detection. Security is then automatically alerted to stop anyone who enters without a mask.

Even more advanced tech such as ion polarization and robotic machines that zap surfaces where COVID is detected are phenomenal introductions into an office but are extremely expensive according to multiple panelists. All in all, technology has to drive people back to the office when there are countless reasons to stay remote. Immersive tech such as virtual and augmented reality could become more popular for digital collaboration when some members are in office while others are home.

Providing transparency is a key factor in increasing the number of workers in office, as Zachar mentioned. Keep the end user in mind and leverage technology to increase tenant engagement, whether through an app to show how safe it is to enter a room or sensors to alert people that capacity has been reached. Landlord/tenant engagement shouldn’t be a new trend, but the pandemic has made it more relevant now than ever before.