As of this writing, the Mid-Hudson region is commencing its phase two reopening, permitting some workers to return to their offices, with significant rules and limitations. Since New York Pause began, I have attended many webinars and read countless articles on the future of office space in the near and long term. One thing I want to make clear at the outset is that uncertainty rules and that any projections — by myself or any other author — are at best pure guesses of what will happen in the foreseeable future.
Official reopening or not, many people will not feel comfortable returning to their offices due to concerns about being in contact with others and with the many touchpoints in their offices and the common areas of their buildings.
Many large companies in New York City and elsewhere have already announced that they will not reopen before September. Some have said they would not reopen until 2021. Twitter announced that workers may work remotely from now on if they wish, with no requirement to return to their offices ever.
Workers also have legitimate concerns about contracting the virus on public transportation (including Metro-North and NYC subways and buses). When the New York Stock Exchange reopened, it expressly prohibited any workers who had taken public transportation from entering the building, obviously to avoid transmission of the virus.
There is anecdotal evidence of companies considering taking leases on satellite offices in various suburbs in order to give their employees a place to work and they can drive to, rather than subjecting them to the risks of public transportation and large office buildings with elevators and myriad other touchpoints. However, most inquiries I have heard about seem to involve short terms of one to three years, which suggests that companies are not yet ready to commit to significant changes in their real estate portfolios.
There will be a significant emphasis on sanitization and control of people in offices when reopening occurs. Cleaners will not only be working at night with enhanced cleaning and sanitizing specifications, but will be visible during the day disinfecting bathrooms, elevator buttons, door handles and such.
Working from Home (WFH) will be a permanent part of the future for a variety of reasons. From my conversations with many business owners, employees and managers have generally adopted well to this format, using Zoom and Skype for meetings; and I have not heard of any issues with productivity. So, it is possible that many workers will have worked from home for approximately six to nine months by the time their offices reopen, which is an exceptionally long time. And the opportunities for childcare, whether by public schools reopening or other facilities (i.e. summer camps or day care centers) will also factor into whether workers are able to return to their offices once they do reopen.
Over the last number of years, most companies have been densifying their offices, reconfiguring them to fit the maximum number of people they can by using small, low workstations; seating workers at long benches with two to three feet between chairs; lots of “huddle rooms” and informal lounging areas with chairs and tables to encourage socialization and idea exchanges.
They have also been enthusiastic about expanding amenities for their employees, including open kitchens with counters and high-top seating, cafeterias with dining areas, fitness centers, ping-pong tables and other games. It has now become clear that all of the above are just the sort of things that dramatically expand the opportunities for disease transmission and increase of infections.
At the present time, businesses may have no more than 50% of their employees in their offices at any time. I have spoken to a number of business owners who have decided to split their staffs when they reopen their offices so that approximately half of them come in for two days per week, and work at home for the rest of the week. Even though many are happy working from home, companies and workers would like to get back to their offices to see their colleagues and to function more “normally” than they have been.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Due to the reduced number of workers in their offices, many companies will rearrange their occupancy patterns so that every other workstation is left vacant, with more separation from their neighbors.
Old-fashioned private offices now look surprisingly good in the pandemic era. Half of chairs in conference and huddle rooms will likely be removed, to increase social distancing. There is much that can be done without totally redesigning and reconstructing existing office space, especially when functioning at less than full occupancy.
Westchester’s three- and four-story dull, suburban office buildings are looking much more attractive now as people can commute in their own cars, park their cars themselves, walk into an uncrowded lobby and walk up stairwells to their offices without touching elevator buttons and sharing small elevators with others.
Property managers and their teams have been busy with many other items than sanitizing their buildings. They have needed to inspect and patrol their empty buildings during the lockdown period to make sure there has been no vandalism and no system problems. They have likely changed all air filters in their HVAC systems to new upgraded standards. They have changed HVAC control settings to allow more fresh air to circulate indoors, thus changing the air more frequently to avoid germs sitting in stagnant air. Water taps have had to be run constantly, to avoid issues like bacteria growing in stagnant water in pipes. They have placed signs throughout the buildings’ common areas regarding social distancing and floor markers in elevators to encourage social distancing. It is highly likely that popular building amenities including fitness centers will be closed for the foreseeable future. Building cafeterias (if open at all) will likely only offer only “grab and go” service. The era of the open salad bar may well be over forever. Cash may not be accepted in the future, as much of the world is shifting to the “tap” method of payment as more sanitary.
We are only at the beginning of the reopening phase for office space. Regulations may change, particularly if there are increases in the virus as more types of activities are permitted. Beyond the official rules, companies and workers are free to be more conservative, and they well may be. Only time will tell how this will play out, both soon and in the long term.
Howard E. Greenberg is president of Howard Properties Ltd. He has represented tenants and landlords for 34 years in Westchester County, throughout the United States and in Europe. He can be reached at 914-997-0300 or email@example.com.