Looking at the impact of COVID on office space and use

Looking at the impact of COVID on office space and use

This story was written for WRAL TechWire partner CBRE | Raleigh.

According to polling data from Gallup, as many as 51% of respondents were working from home last April. Over the past year, Gallup polling data also reported that the number had decreased significantly, down to just over 30% in the final months of 2020.

While many people have returned to their workplaces since last year, the impact of COVID is still being felt as it relates to how office space is used — and it will impact the way we use office for years to come.

“Since the beginning of COVID, the trend was to vacate the office to promote employee’s safety and help slow the spread of the virus. Re-entry into the office was not really a topic of conversation until recently,” said Jason High, an executive vice president of occupier services at CBRE | Raleigh. “In the last three months, companies have started to think about re-entry and asking the questions, how does it work? How do we start getting back to the office and what does that look like?”

For some companies, the return to the office is a phased approach, dividing employees into groups and rotating their in-office schedules. For others, more space is needed to give employees room to distance themselves from one another; and for some, it’s allowing employees to work from home permanently.

National companies like Amazon and Google, which have already returned some employees to in-person work, are helping to set the tone for what exactly this new type of office use will look like.

“Many of our owners are looking at different measures to market their buildings, whether it’s opening up more outdoor spaces, improving sanitization and/or installing air filtration systems that are the equivalent of what you would find in hospitals and on airplanes,” said Brad Corsmeier, an executive vice president of the Advisory and Transactions Services group at CBRE | Raleigh. “Other than that, we are seeing a lot of trends around the physical use of space, such as rotating employees or dividing out the use of office space more intentionally.”

Since re-entry into the office is still relatively new for most companies, real estate specialists like those at CBRE are keeping a careful eye on changing trends.

“What has been frustrating for some companies is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What works for one company may not work for another,” said High. “It really is company-specific, so it’s important to understand your employees and how they work. Many companies that we are speaking with say re-entry is going to start with a hybrid model. Yet even this model looks different from company to company. One company may have a set rotation of days that employees come in. While another company may have completely free-addressed seating and employees have no set days to be in the office but are required put in the equivalent of two to three days of work in the office each week. Again, it just depends on what works best for the specific company, its employees and the company’s goals.”

As trends continue to evolve, High and Corsmeier anticipate that companies will put an emphasis on collaboration, career-pathing and culture, since COVID greatly reduced each. For offices that have been operating remotely for the past year, re-establishing these parts of their business are an area of need.

“For employees that were employed by their company before COVID, they have been able to weather the pandemic better because they had already become a part of the culture and developed relationships with their peers,” said High. “But when you start looking at hiring new people, it becomes much more difficult to get buy-in to the corporate culture and it is harder to mentor and train them since everyone is not together in one place.”

Whether offices opt for a hybrid model, expand outdoor spaces or increase indoor capacity, a return to the office is happening — and even if it is slow, it’s also steady.

“The office is dead commentary was and is a false narrative for most,” said Tom Fritsch, senior managing director at CBRE | Raleigh. “The trend we are seeing is that companies want to find a way to get people back together and they are looking for the safest ways to achieve that goal. It is going to be constantly evolving as these phases of re-occupancy occur. I remain very bullish on the use of office and am encouraged about the growing emphasis on getting folks back together.”

“Right now, there is still a cautious evaluation process from tenants,” said Corsmeier. “Yet take note, we have not even begun to feel the positive impact of the recent announcements of two major tech companies coming to the Triangle. I realize tenants need a thoughtful, safe plan to return to the office, yet I would suggest they get their plans in place soon. We are coming back in a big way. And Raleigh-Durham is going to turn on a dime.”

This story was written for WRAL TechWire partner CBRE | Raleigh.

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Kassie Hoffman
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