By: Stephen Cassidy, President, Denholtz Properties
As COVID-19 swept through the nation early last year, it seemed highly improbable that many workers across the U.S. would still be working from home offices, bedrooms, and backyards by the time 2021 began. In the earlier phases of the pandemic, it was estimated that 42 percent of the entire American workforce was working from home full time. However, as the new year starts and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag on, most workers still have not seen their offices in over 11 months. Recent visits to such cities as Charlotte, Raleigh, Tampa and Orlando still provide an uneasy feeling as the term “ghost town” comes to mind while walking the streets during normal business hours. In what has become an impromptu test case in how effectively workers can work remotely, it would seem, on the surface at least, that the work-from-home experiment has been a great success. For those in the commercial real estate space, we must ask ourselves the question– is the physical office a thing of the past?
While there has been consistent doom and gloom in the office sector for many months surrounding the answer to that important question, I have consistently taken a contrarian viewpoint. While work-from-home has shown some success, I am not confident that it is a long-term solution and companies will begin seeing diminishing returns shortly, if they have not already.
It is obvious that how we work and where we work has undoubtedly changed forever. But I see three main reasons why the physical office will remain a key component of the workplace of the future – Culture, Collaboration and Coaching.
These “three C’s” play a crucial role in the viability of the office market and why I think the market will not only rebound but see a resurgence in the years to come.
Every company continually seeks to define who it is as an organization. An organization’s culture is ultimately determined by several factors including beliefs, goals, and interactions with both colleagues and business partners. While these are often intangible ideas, the workplace is a critical component in an organization’s overall ability to reinforce and carry out these ideals on a day-to-day basis.
Virtual happy hours or weekly check-ins via Teams or Zoom, while perfectly adequate stopgap measures for an established workplace, do little to advance or support the growth of a vibrant, positive workplace culture. At our heart, humans are social creatures, and we rely upon socialization to improve our physical, mental and emotional well-being. The tiny social interactions that an employee might experience when walking by a coworker on their way to grab something out of the kitchen refrigerator or a conversation overheard from across the office are completely lost when working remotely. Without those, office culture suffers immensely.
Our executive team recognized early on that it would be impossible to support the dynamic, entrepreneurial spirit that had defined our corporate culture as we faced several months of working from home. That was a significant impetus for our team to return to the office by September of last year when we deemed it was safe to do so with appropriate measures such as requiring masks, adding hand sanitizing stations throughout the office, and making accommodations to ensure social distancing in our office. I know that countless companies are struggling with this same decision right now, but for us, it was the right one.
At the heart of any company’s ability to execute is how effectively it can collaborate from across the enterprise to create solutions to unique and complex problems. When in the office, that collaboration could come in the form of a quick stopover at a fellow employee’s desk or a brainstorming session with several members of the executive team bouncing ideas off each other in the conference room.
Similar to establishing a culture, fostering collaboration is only made more difficult by remote work. Typically, being together and brainstorming provides companies with the best conditions to react to real-world, real-time events. Additionally, trust and understanding of fellow employees’ capabilities are developed in those situations that require close collaboration.
Anyone who has tried to brainstorm virtually or navigate a tense situation knows that video just doesn’t pick up human nuance in communication and can make it hard for more than one person to participate in a conversation. Also, the tendency for senior leaders to lead these conversations makes it more difficult for junior-level employees to stand out and share ideas, some of which could have real benefits to a company For someone hoping to differentiate themselves, the structure of the average video conference can make it almost impossible to do so.
Something that can often be overlooked when discussing the advantages of the physical workplace is coaching. Whether it is onboarding a new employee – no easy task in the current workplace environment – or helping an established employee learn or sharpen new skills, the already difficult process of coaching is only made more challenging when performed virtually.
The changing demographics of the office adds another layer to this challenge. Millennials are the largest population in the workforce at 35 percent. As Gen Z begins to enter the workforce in larger numbers, that will bring the percentage of workers under the age of 40 to well over 50 percent. As boomers continue to retire en masse and take decades of knowledge and experience with them, that will leave Gen X to train a new crop of workers and facilitate the transition of a new class of upper management. That impending intergenerational shift will make it even more crucial for workers to be in the same place as their mentors and those above them in the corporate structure.
More and more employers will soon be asking themselves – is it possible to create an agile, knowledgeable, and powerful team without ever seeing it? I know that the answer for most companies will be no.
Coming Back to the Office
When these three factors are added together, they correlate to a true competitive advantage for companies working together in the same place. With the continued rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, I expect what has been a trickle of companies returning to the workplace to turn into a regular flow throughout 2021.
That does not mean the return to the workplace will be a return to normal. Work-from-home accommodations are here to stay, so workforces, while numerically the same, will need less working space on a day-to-day basis. However, a renewed focus on employee wellness and collaboration could offer balance. We have already seen companies begin to implement meditation or quiet rooms in workplaces and other wellness features. These amenities all require additional space and flexible building design. Additionally, we anticipate that more companies will move away from the space-saving open floor plans to a more traditional office set-up which will also require additional space.
Already underway before COVID-19, I expect to see the bifurcation of the office market accelerate as tenants place a renewed emphasis on quality. While Class-B and Class-C office spaces were already struggling to find tenants before COVID-19, their lack of modern features and older building systems, particularly HVAC technology, could mean their demise is only sped up.
However, the critical role that the 3 C’s play in both the success of organizations and their employees makes me confident that workers will return to the office in 2021, resurrecting the asset class as it evolves to meet the needs of today’s resilient workforce.