As the U.S. continues to deal with the economic fallout of COVID-19, study after study has documented the body blows being dealt to the U.S. commercial real-estate market. In urban centers, like Chicago, where demand for office space was booming just six months ago, the rush among tenants to end leases early and shed costs associated with workspaces that have been largely abandoned has begun. Although no one knows exactly how the rest of the pandemic will unfold and what the long-term impacts will be, it’s a near certainty this trend will continue without immediate interventions, causing significant economic harm to a variety of industries that depend on healthy CRE markets.
Unfortunately, the intervention that is most likely to reverse rapidly declining demand for office space and, more broadly, commercial properties, is an effective vaccine that we’re reminded daily is far from a sure thing. In this strange, suspended state, what then can be done to reassure tenants that returning to the workplace can be accomplished safely and bolster the commercial real-estate market in the process?
Before answering this question, it’s necessary to ask a more fundamental one: Is a return to the office something that tenants should actually want? While many companies that have shifted to fully remote work models have reported being pleasantly surprised by productivity levels, safely returning to the workplace offers benefits that simply can’t be matched while offices remain closed. According to a Cushman & Wakefield study published in June, personal connections and bonding are suffering as a result of remote work, particularly among younger employees. As the study states, “even though employees report high levels of pride working for their companies and they like their company culture, it is hard to maintain a sense of personal connection and belonging to that culture when not nurtured and ‘lived’ in person.” This could be one of the reasons just 12 percent of U.S. workers said they want to work from home full-time in a Gensler survey released in late May. For many, it seems that whatever productivity gains they’ve achieved have been offset by the loss of in-person collaboration and a sense of workplace culture that makes work a more enjoyable experience.
This seems to be a clear indication that the “traditional” office isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but it will have to look different and function far differently than it has in the past. And the first step in a widespread return to offices is a broad evaluation of how the built environment can be adapted in ways that mitigate the risk of virus transmission to whatever extent possible. Although there simply is not a total solution for the challenge we’re currently facing, doing so is the most effective way we can resume daily routines that resemble what many of us are used to and help the country get back to work.
What does this look like? Through automation, it’s possible to create a virtually touch-free experience from the moment an employee enters an office in the morning to the moment they exit at the end of the day, minimizing opportunities for the transmission of the virus. The unionized electrical industry in the Chicago area has been installing a range of technology solutions for years that make possible a contactless environment and now is the time to deploy them widely in office buildings and other commercial properties throughout the country.
Automatic doors are ubiquitous at newer commercial properties, and with the ease and speed with which they can be retrofitted in older buildings, there are few barriers to installing them throughout the city’s central business district. Less common, but similarly straightforward to install, are thermal camera systems in highly trafficked locations that provide a contactless first line of defense. Access points, like security gates, can be controlled with fobs or mobile devices that don’t require an ID badge to touch another surface, and elevator controls need not require someone to press a button with their hand. In bathrooms, motion-activated faucets, toilets and paper-towel dispensers eliminate several additional high-touch surfaces. And with so much uncertainty about how the pandemic will unfold and the ways it will affect businesses’ spatial needs, investments in wireless connectivity offer the potential for office spaces to be quickly reconfigured as needs change in the months ahead.
There are countless additional examples of modifications that can be made that leverage technology to reduce or eliminate the need for physical contact and, in large part, they’re tried and true applications. While these modifications may require an upfront investment, the cost is negligible when considering an alternate reality in which the buildings that drive our economy sit empty. The sooner we take advantage of the technology available to us and implement it widely as part of reentry plans that include enhanced cleaning regimens, PPE for employees, reconfigured office layouts, staggered schedules that prevent overcrowding and other preventative measures, the sooner workers will be able to safely return to their offices and the stronger the rebound in the commercial real-estate markets will be.