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Despite Some States Reopening, Office Tenants Return Slowly, Not So Surely

Despite Some States Reopening, Office Tenants Return Slowly, Not So Surely
A slide from workplace management platform Eden's "12-Point Plan for Workplace Re-entry"

As Gov. Mike DeWine lifts stay-at-home restrictions for general offices and a number of other business types in Ohio, some corporate office tenants will be reunited with the desks, proper office chairs and full-sized monitors they haven’t seen for weeks.

Employees of one 200-employee law firm in Cleveland will return as soon as Monday — but at one-third capacity. With the staff broken into three groups working from the office in shifts, individuals will work on-site a maximum of two days per week, indefinitely.

KeyBank is not in a hurry to bring its workforce of 11,000 out of remote work mode, and neither are many similar companies.

"While we have started to plan for our teammates who have been working remotely to return to their respective worksites, we are doing so cautiously and thoughtfully," a KeyBank spokesperson told Cleveland.com, in what is becoming a common refrain.

The same pattern is being repeated across the U.S. and in major cities around the world. Public officials and the real estate industry are united in their desire to get people back into offices as quickly as possible. Politicians want to return to something as close to normality as possible and get economies going again. And real estate owners want companies back in offices, in case occupiers start to wonder if traditional office space is as important to their businesses as they thought.

But companies and employees are plotting out their next moves with great consideration. When will these cautiously, thoughtfully laid plans go into effect? When will all these Six-Feet Offices be inhabited again? 

CoreNet Global Senior Vice President Tim Venable said that from what he has seen, most companies across the board are in no great rush to get all their employees back in the office right away. But when they do return, it will look like the examples provided by the likes of KeyBank. It won’t be all at once.

“A strong majority of our members — 84% — report that they plan to bring employees back in waves,” Venable said. “Health and safety concerns, including appropriate physical distancing, can be better managed at re-entry with reduced numbers of staff in the building. And from all indications, remote working is proving effective.”

“As one of our members noted recently on a pop-up webinar: 'Irrespective of what local governments say, there will not be any action moving forward to reoccupy our sites until, as an organization and employer, we feel that we have ticked all the boxes for cleaning and physical distancing,” he added.

The number of boxes will vary from company to company, but initial recommendations — even plans designed to be simple and accessible — make for quite a few boxes to tick.

Sometimes those boxes can be unwieldy, to boot, from retaining electrostatic sterilization services and self-disinfecting nanoseptic surfaces to installing new systems and policies for office layouts and elevator use.

But even if management teams feel ready to have their staff back in the office, there are other things to consider — like how they will get there. New York companies are needing to consider private van or bus services to transport commuters for as long as public transportation remains high-risk.

VTS CEO and co-founder Nick Romito said his company is considering sanitation stations and other physical infrastructure in the office to help keep the team healthy. It takes time and research. "This thing’s not going to go away fully," he said. "We want to be back as soon as possible, but not in an environment that’s not safe for our people."

Despite Some States Reopening, Office Tenants Return Slowly, Not So Surely
In Eden's "12-Point Plan for Workplace Re-Entry" webinar, recommendations for returning to the office included ways to improve the experience for those who stay at home.

In New York City, Jeff Blau, CEO of Related, said last week that Hudson Yards office buildings will have staggered start times and workers will be told to wear masks when tenants return. 

In Dallas, there has been no clear stampede back to office space despite the fact Texas has a green light to reopen per guidelines from Gov. Greg Abbott.

Corporate law firm Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr Shareholder and Board Member Kitty O'Connell Henry told Bisnow: “I think that there are a lot of companies that are concerned about doing things too fast, or not carefully enough, because there hasn't been enough time to think it all the way through, and all the consequences.”

Similarly in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp issued a loose and controversial plan for reopening, which was put into effect in late April. In Savannah, tourists are cautiously beginning to return, but relatively few restaurants managed to round up enough employees, comply with the regulatory standards and secure the support of their customer bases enough to justify reopening.

Among office tenants, there is no unified approach or clear consensus how and when re-entry should happen.

Georgia Power is one of the larger employers in the state with upward of 8,000 employees. While the utility company has continued essential operations with its crews and plant workers over the past two months, nonessential employees transitioned to remote work, and for now, there is no urgency to change back. According to Media Relations Manager John Kraft, both essential and nonessential workers will continue to adhere to the present precautionary measures for the foreseeable future.

“Currently, Georgia Power is working on a plan to return to normal operations,” Kraft told Bisnow in a statement. “Future phases of re-entry for teleworking employees will only be launched after careful consideration of a variety of factors including the health and safety of employees, status of the virus in our state, the feasibility of each group continuing their responsibilities remotely, the impacts of school closures, childcare availability and more.”

These "slowly and not so surely" statements echo around the globe

In London, Deutsche Bank Managing Director for Corporate Services Kathryn Harrison-Thomas speculated on the likely ubiquity of the phased return, in which employees only use the office a few people at a time. 

"What changes is how much real estate you need to consume at any one time," Harrison-Thomas said. "COVID-19 could be with us for three to five years, and what a lot of big companies will do is not go back to what they had before. Big companies have shown they can weather this and keep a semblance of normal operations and operate in a steady state and maintain the security of their business over a long period of time.

"What I suspect will happen is that when we do go back, you won’t have more than 50% of staff in at any one time. We will go back carefully and it will be a phased return, to make sure we don’t lose critical people to illness,” she said.

What will that do to demand? CBRE Global Brokerage Chief Stephen B. Siegel told the New York Post that he hopes it means large tenants will upsize, giving employees more room to spread out.

The alternative, of course, is that employers need less space than previously, perhaps putting part of the difference toward helping facilitate better work-from-home infrastructure for each employee.

At HubSpot, which has some 3,300 employees across nine global offices (including SydneySingaporeBerlin and Bogotá), leadership is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines closely to fashion a re-entry plan. 

But according to HubSpot Chief People Officer Katie Burke in Boston, all nine offices are “closed for the foreseeable future,” and after that, returning to the office will be on an opt-in basis. If team members prefer working from home, Burke told Bisnow, they will be “explicitly able and encouraged to do so.” 

“We are focused on our employees’ health and safety, and we are fortunate that we can still help our prospects and customers grow working remotely globally,” Burke said. “We're following the lead of local health authorities in each of our markets to inform our decision ... Our facilities, IT, people operations teams and local leaders are meeting regularly to discuss new procedures to ensure the health and safety of our employees if and when we're able to return to working in our offices.”

The company does its best to stay on top of news from local officials across all its office locations, though that information may change daily, and to be “as transparent as possible” with employees via the company’s wiki and regular “AMA” calls with leadership, Burke said.

Changes to office layouts, closing certain facilities, implementing new cleaning procedures, recommending or requiring face masks, and making all large meetings and events fully virtual are all within the realm of possibility at HubSpot’s future offices, Burke said. The one certainty across the board is that health and safety will remain top priority.

“For me personally, a lot of my focus has been on making sure everyone knows that the ‘new normal’ of returning to work won’t be the same as what we left,” she said. “We’ll ease back into it together, and it will take some adjustments. I personally won’t go back until I feel it’s 100% safe to do so.”