Why the Commercial Office Will Survive COVID-19

August 21, 2020Alerts

Over the past several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has given much of the nation’s office workforce a crash course in working from home. As cities and states across the country begin to roll back stay-at-home orders, some now question whether companies will order their employees to return to the office or allow them to maintain remote work arrangements. As long as COVID-19 remains a significant health threat, companies may be hesitant to recall their full workforce and many workers will likely prefer to continue working remotely.

The past few months have proved that workers can work efficiently from home. However, the question that will be raised in the aftermath of the pandemic will be whether workers should or want to work from home, and whether the workplace itself will be a casualty of COVID-19. There have been indications that some companies may abandon their bricks-and-mortar offices and transition to a remote workforce, thereby decreasing the demand for commercial office space. For example, tech companies Twitter and Square have announced that they will permit most employees to work from home permanently. Nationwide is accelerating its transition to a permanent hybrid work model, which will reduce its footprint to just four office properties by the end of 2020. Even Google, renowned for its benefits-laden campus, has announced that it will allow employees to work from home until at least July 2021.

Despite predictions that remote work will be the new normal heralding the demise of the traditional office, the workplace will rebound after the public health emergency ends and public fears subside. Put simply, traditional offices provide many intangible benefits that are not available in remote work settings. For companies that thrive on an innovative and collaborative culture, it will be difficult to stay away from the office.

In-Person Collaboration Is Not Easily Replicated

The workplace is more than just a building to which employees report for certain hours each day — it is a place where colleagues share knowledge, generate ideas and exchange perspectives. Working in an office rather than remotely fosters spontaneous collaboration and creativity, which can be a major driver of innovation. In the office, colleagues can share opinions and brainstorm in ways not easily replicated in a videoconference. From conversations in the hallway to short chats at the water cooler, working on site brings people into regular contact, which sparks insights and creative solutions. In-person interaction among co-workers also enhances nonverbal communication such as body language. The office environment facilitates the enthusiastic exchange of new ideas, as people are more inclined to walk over to their colleague’s desk to share a budding thought, saving phone calls and emails for more fleshed out and established ideas. These exciting but undeveloped ideas may be lost in a remote work setting due a lack of opportunity for informal interaction. The physical office remains an ideal setting for collaboration, innovation and creativity.

Junior Staff and Company Culture Are Best Nurtured in the Office

The physical office is also superior for training, developing and mentoring junior staff. With in-person work, it is easier for employees to connect with their superiors on minor matters — walking into the boss’s office or catching her at the coffee station is a lot less intimidating than scheduling a call or sending an email that may be misinterpreted. For younger employees, regularly interacting with more seasoned colleagues provides invaluable business knowledge and facilitates relationship building, while office banter helps sharpen interpersonal and communication skills. In an age in which many companies are concerned about data security, an office provides a superior venue for training in security protocols, giving the company more control over its data and avoiding privacy concerns specific to remote work.

Moreover, working in the office helps to preserve and perpetuate company culture, something many companies value highly and painstakingly cultivate over many years. The office is not only the best place for a company to shape and display its corporate culture, it provides a location for distributing popular employee perks and amenities, from complimentary snacks and drinks to gyms and recreational spaces. These additional benefits can create a positive culture that is instrumental in recruitment and retention of employees and also serves to attract and impress clients. Even reception areas are designed to convey a certain image. The experience of giving a recruit a tour of the company campus or walking a client down a sharply designed hallway and into a striking conference room cannot be recreated virtually.

Property Technology Has Helped Landlords and Companies Adapt

While COVID-19 and fears of future pandemics may halt, and possibly reverse the recent trend towards densification and open-plan layouts for the foreseeable future, the pandemic has also accelerated the trend towards “healthy” and “smart” buildings. Prior to the pandemic, many commercial office landlords were already using property technology to enhance the tenant experience. Since the pandemic, landlords have begun installing more sophisticated air filtration and HVAC systems to purge the air. Low-touch or no-touch fixtures are being added throughout office buildings, and buttons, door handles and other high-contact surfaces are being rendered touchless. Within commercial office buildings, rigorous cleaning protocols, schedule shifting and the closure of common spaces are some of the many efforts landlords are undertaking to make tenants feel safe enough to return to the office. As landlords close or limit access to shared amenity spaces, digital services will be crucial to providing a differentiated experience and meeting tenant needs.

Businesses, in turn, are taking steps to ensure employee safety. Many companies are redesigning workspaces and cubicles, spacing out desks and conference room seating, installing antimicrobial surfaces, putting down floor markings and mandating rigorous cleaning protocols. Some companies are setting up small satellite offices in suburban locations rather than requiring large portions of their workforce to commute to downtown locations. And some are going further by offering or even requiring coronavirus testing for workers returning to the office, adding thermal scanners and employing sensors and other tools to ensure employees remain a safe distance apart. Some businesses are even considering ending the work day earlier than usual to allow cleaning crews sufficient time to conduct more thorough cleaning. While some of these changes will fade away as the threat of COVID-19 subsides, other changes, such as office configurations, maintenance procedures and touchless technologies will likely survive long-term.

Work-Life Balance Is Better Achieved By Returning to the Office

The open secret of the national remote work experience has been that many workers value the demarcation between work and home and are longing to return to the office. While remote work has long been touted as a way to achieve work-life balance, many have found that it is actually more difficult to achieve a balance when working from home because one is always “on the clock.” There have been reports of “work creep” resulting in checking and responding to email messages from dawn until midnight. The reality is that a clearly defined workspace, separated from the home, may better promote work-life balance. Moreover, for many, returning to the office provides a space to concentrate and escape the daily distractions present in the home. In addition to providing a mental separation between work and personal life, working in an office makes it easier to stay motivated. Being surrounded by hard-working colleagues can help employees focus, push them to succeed and create a more positive professional environment.

Key Takeaways

While COVID-19 will likely continue to have a significant impact on office real estate in the coming weeks and months, the remote work setting cannot replicate the many intangible benefits of the physical office. The wants and needs of stakeholders — businesses, employees, visitors and landlords — all indicate that the commercial office will survive COVID-19, albeit in an altered form. The workplace is not dead — it will simply evolve.

Olufunke Leroy is a member of the firm's Real Estate Department. She can be reached at [email protected].