What to Consider When Moving Back to the Office

In many places around the world, this long-awaited question is starting to feel relevant again, but how much has changed, and how should property firms react?

Becky Poynton
August 18, 2021
What do Brokerages Need to Consider When Moving Back to the Office?

Over the last 16 months, real estate brokerages and professionals have tried to grapple with the onslaught of the Coronavirus pandemic by adopting the work-from-home (WFH) approach, conducting meetings through Zoom and hosting virtual tours online. Although the presence and aftermath of COVID-19 is still prevalent today, relaxed government restrictions and increased vaccinations have led many organizations to start addressing the possibility of opening up the offices again but if so, what areas of concern are there to consider? 

According to a report by Cushman & Wakefield, the number of permanent remote workers and hybrid workers will increase over time, with office real estate markets returning to pre-Covid levels only in 2025. At the same time, brokerages and agencies are tentatively testing out the waters when it comes to the return to office life one year on, with varied approaches. 

The Return
Even by the end of 2020, it was noted by a Partnership for New York City survey that “the real estate industry has been the most aggressive in bringing employees back to the office,” although the same study revealed that 87% of employers believed that the ongoing status of COVID-19 would be the greatest influence on the pace of employees’ return to the office. 

This may explain why a few firms have even started partnering with healthcare providers to open testing facilities that run 12 hours a day, seven days a week, providing COVID-19 tests for workers and paid for by the company. It’s an attempt at alleviating valid employee concerns regarding safety of the office environment and state-wide vaccination roll-outs. 

Office Real Estate
Another serious area of consideration is office space itself. With millions of office square space sitting vacant and losing money over the last year, businesses and landlords alike have to try and reconfigure what the office space will look like, with most agreeing that returning to a ‘business as usual’ model won’t suffice. With the WFH dynamic proving that much brick-and-mortar office work can be accomplished as successfully (if not more) at home than at the office, the debate is left wide open as to what the office will mean for brokerages in 2021 onwards. 

For sure, there are many that applaud the prospect of returning, as it gives many RE leaders the opportunity to hold trainings and business meetings in person, (in limited numbers), and with the right safety protocols put in place, they could be safe and a nice change after a year of virtual, mute-on, mute-off Zoom meetings. Agents too, can once again have face-to-face interactions with their clients, making meaningful connections that last. 

Worker Safety
There is also the recommendation that brokerages and firms start initiating “Return to Work” whitepapers that can be distributed company-wide, assuring their teams that workplace safety measures as well as workplace sanitization practices are being implemented. One survey reveals that 29% of leaders say they’re evaluating contact tracing tools, like this one by PwC, as a way of helping manage COVID-19 transmissions. 

PwC also conducted a survey which revealed about 51% of respondents anticipating an increase in office space, but with two key drivers: physical distance requirements (more room for each person), and the need for collaboration areas. Those who are new with little to no experience may want to be in the office environment more to learn and be guided; for a non RE example, Google announced it would try a hybrid office model because physical spaces, they believe, should nurture new talent as well as promote company culture. 

However, it’s also important to note that employees want to return much more slowly than employers anticipated. The study also found that real estate portfolios are in transition mode: over the next three years, some executives expect to reduce office space, while others expect to need more, revealing the new reality that businesses can make no hard-and-fast ruling in the near future. In fact, given the nature of the pandemic and what we’ve seen so far with the repercussions of its variants, businesses that do return to the office should still be prepared with shut-down protocols in case of emergencies.

The Legacy of WFH
Which leads us back to WFH - a very real, very successful phenomenon. 

So successful in fact, that it’s leaving many C-level execs to take a closer look at potential savings, in rent, in ‘virus-proofing’ offices, and expanding building space, while addressing the reality that many workers simply still do not feel safe enough to return to work, with only 14% saying they trusted their CEOs and managers to safely lead them back to the office. 

As a result, 54% of leaders say they plan to make remote work a permanent option for roles that allow it, and agents themselves realize they have more choices in the ways they conduct their businesses and, importantly over the last year, have discovered whole new ways of reaching their goals using digital solutions, often independently and remotely. Cloud tech has liberated office workers and digital agents from the office, and even with relaxed restrictions, younger professionals have embraced a ‘digital nomadic’ lifestyle, indicating a potential new shift which is shaped by the new generation of working professionals. 

No matter which way brokerages decide to lean towards, it’s clear that workplaces of 2021 and beyond need to be more than they were before: not only safer, but have deep meaning and compelling enough reasons for it to be worth it for professionals to return often. Or perhaps a hybrid model is indeed the way of the future: unlocking possibilities for agents to have multiple workplaces and enhanced flexibility in their work mode, working not only from home, but from anywhere at all.

For our previous take on the future of the RE office, published way back in August 2020 :

Will Proptech and the Pandemic Kill the Real Estate Office?

As many property professionals turn to proptech while working from home during COVID-19, what does this mean for the future of the shopfront real estate office?