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  • Writer's pictureRich Harris

COVID-19 Impact on The Global Office Market

The pandemic has challenged many companies to re-evaluate their office footprint leading many to wonder what the future holds for office buildings and the office market in general...

As the spread of COVID-19 proliferated across the globe, populations around the world have been forced to re-evaluate how they live and interact. In many ways, the pandemic has ushered in a 'reset' relative to how we think about work, entertainment and spending time with others; and while this reset is different family to family and culture to culture, it's impact is undeniable in areas like the environment, the workplace, and the role that governments might play to mitigate economic disaster.

These issues are broad and far reaching, and while we are in the early stages of seeing how society will adapt and whether some of these adaptations will remain in perpetuity, the one thing that is certain is that we should all expect change. Change is hard, and while most struggle to embrace it, change is often necessary for our survival. Change can also serve to show that we are evolving as people, and as a society. While tourists overwhelmed the canals of Venice pre-pandemic, locals now see clear water, which has lead to a larger discussion around whether they should return to 'business as usual' once a vaccine can be widely disseminated. While air travelers have been relegated to "cattle-car" like seating since the inception of the airline industry, finally the consumer is questioning the proximity of other passengers. Offices across the globe, which have increasingly been embracing density as a way to offset the rising costs of real estate in this last up-cycle, are now forced into a sort of self-reckoning. Co-working companies entire business plans revolve around putting more people across the same square footage - so what does the future hold? Change...

At a deeper level, some have even come to question the purpose of an office. During the 'shelter in place' orders, companies embraced Zoom/Teams/Skype/FaceTime/etc. video technology platforms, ubiquitous now in these surreal times, but the tech has been around for years. It was the pandemic that led to it being widely tested and accepted as a meaningful form of collaboration. And now we are finding that many employees actually prefer their home office or would like to spend substantially more time there. Can they be productive? While the jury is out on how productive people are remote versus in the office, the pandemic forces will undoubtedly drive change in this regard. Additionally, many CEOs may succumb to the immediate temptation of cost-cutting through subleasing or meaningfully smaller footprints for future spaces even before these questions are answered for various industries.

Ironically, Americans are less communal than other cultures around the world where a house may be filled with extended family members, making American office culture more ripe for disruption. But will any of these potential changes be long lasting? I suspect we will see corporations look to shrink their footprints, especially where they are seeing success in remote collaboration, but I'd also suspect a reversion to the mean as it relates to historical office usage. The workplace utilization studies have told the same story for years: most work spaces are left unoccupied throughout much of the workday, so how do you get the best bang for your rental buck when your staff is not able to utilize the space at a level that warranted the investment in the first place? Well, similar to the airline example, I expect businesses to re-examine the purpose of today's office in a post COVID-19 world. Why are we there? Do we need to be? If so, for what? What is compelling for driving collaboration and creativity? What would makes us more efficient? These are only a few of the questions that business leaders, architects, and real estate professionals will be looking to answer.

I expect to see smaller footprints, finally acknowledging these workplace utilization studies - with some employees starting to give up the idea of a permanent, designated space in the office. The technology exists to make any corner of an office feel like a permanent space (think family pictures displayed on numerous monitors generated by a simple USB mini-storage the employee places in the [universal] terminal), so this coupled with the ability to work from home or even the local coffee shop for that matter (post pandemic), is likely to be a real catalyst for change going forward. I expect architects to create environments that bring together 'Star Trek' and 'Starbucks' focusing primarily on in-person collaboration areas, but also creating the personalized quiet areas mentioned earlier. When people come to the office, they need to be inspired, and the spaces will need to drive that connection. It need to be easy to connect to the network and any terminal and still feel like its yours and your not on a subway. And like all change, perhaps something unexpected emerges to show us more about our business. Psychologists have long touted the benefit of novelty in keeping our brains stimulated and high performing. It's easy to see how sitting in a different spot could be like changing our exercise routine, something highly recommended be experts for its benefits. Maybe sitting by the window one day and in the soft seating the next, will further drive productivity and employee happiness. Only time will tell...

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