Why office real estate landlords aren't panicking just yet

Sunday, June 7, 2020   /   by Sergey Korostensky

Why office real estate landlords aren't panicking just yet

With tens of millions of employees working from home or laid off, the future of the workplace is now a primary concern for commercial landlords and tenants.

A recent report by Cushman & Wakefield (C&W) found that 73 per cent of workers would like their employers to adopt “some level of working from home.” Also, 90 per cent of employees believed their employers trusted them to work remotely.

But do these developments mean the end of “the office” as we know it? Not really. The report describes a new normal that will involve a “total workplace ecosystem” comprising more than a single destination and including a combination of virtual and physical places.

Critics of telework often argue that collaboration weakens when workers are confined to remote silos, but the C&W report suggests otherwise. It found collaborative work increased by 10 per cent with telework over the pre-COVID-19 period, with technological advances being credited for the big shift.

Roelof van Dijk of the CoStar Group sees two opposite forces simultaneously pushing and pulling on the demand for office real estate. On the one hand are the pandemic-related social distancing regulations that are behind the surge in working from home. As the number of workers, especially in the knowledge economy sector, continue to telework on most days, the demand for office space is likely to decline.

At the same time, social distancing regulations will require more space to be maintained between workers. The same floor space in the future will, therefore, hold fewer workers if they are spaced farther apart. Hence, even if a segment of employees continues to telework, spatial distancing measures requiring more space per employee should counteract the decline in demand.

In the short-term, landlords are unlikely to reduce rents drastically if the demand for office space decreases. It is also unlikely that office tenants will seek additional space if social distancing measures mandate more space per employee. Instead, tenants are likely to stagger schedules by having workers come in on alternating days or at different times, allowing tenants to maintain the same amount of space until their leases are up for renewal.

Office real estate markets present a mixed picture for demand today. According to data provided by CoStar Group, vacancy rates are exceptionally low in some parts of Canada, where the demand for office space is high, and the supply has not kept pace. While in other places, ominous signs of growing weakness are apparent.