My New Normal: West, Lane & Schlager Co-Founder Eric West
This series aims to capture a moment in time, talking to men and women in commercial real estate about how their lives and businesses are being transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.
For tenant brokers like Eric West, a typical day usually consists of in-person meetings with clients and tours of office buildings.
The coronavirus is forcing West, the co-founder of D.C.-based tenant rep firm West, Lane & Schlager, to adapt to working from home and only talking with clients through phone and video calls. While he has gotten used to the adjustment and developed a routine, West said he does not think this pandemic will change the importance of face-to-face interactions in the commercial real estate business, and in the office environment, in the future.
During his 33-year real estate career, West has represented over 200 nonprofits including the U.S. Travel Association, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Pew Research Center, Save the Children International, the American Forest & Paper Association and the National Council on Aging. In 2015, West received CREBA's James L. Eichberg Broker of the Year award, one of the top honors in D.C. commercial real estate.
West, a Tulane University alumnus, began his career in 1987 as a broker for Barrueta & Associates, which was later acquired by Transwestern. In 1996, he founded West, Lane & Schlager along with Richard Lane and Gary Schlager. The company now has 16 employees, in addition to the three co-founders.
Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life.
West: Prior to COVID-19, I only worked from home when I needed quiet space to concentrate on “thought work.” So, it’s been a bit of an adjustment to do it every day. These past weeks have really brought into focus for me the different benefits of office and telework. Before all of this, I used to start my day at 5:45 a.m., go to the gym and then the office, come home for dinner with my family and, on many nights, I’d do some research and work until about 10:30 p.m.
Ironically, working from home I can maintain that intensity but I have more time. I still wake up early and get to work but obviously don’t have a commute. I break for lunch, work until about 4, and then exercise before taking time for dinner and hanging out with my family. I am at home with my wife and three children (college grad, college student and high school student) and our dog Ruby. For me, the key to staying productive is sticking to a routine as much as possible.
Bisnow: How are you transitioning your life and business to the homefront?
West: I am not a great multitasker, so without a very clear daily routine, my home and work lives were blending into each other and that hurt my productivity and affected my psyche. So, after a few days, I started to stick to a very defined work and home-life schedule. I get up, shower, get dressed in clothes, not sweats, and get my day going. I am doing lots of Zoom calls. None of that is really so different from what I’d be doing if I went to the office, except for the type of clothes I wear. The real difference for me, like everyone, is the inability to interact with other people at lunch, the gym or at someone’s house. So much of my job involves personally meeting with people, which we can’t do right now. And that is hard.
Bisnow: What is the state of your business at the moment?
West: We were very lucky in that a number of deals we were working on in 2019 didn’t close until early 2020. Because of that, our first quarter was unusually strong and that has given me and my partners tremendous peace of mind. We’ve been in contact with all of our clients to help them navigate the uncertainty of these difficult and uncharted times. We have some deals that are moving forward and some that will be put on pause.
Bisnow: What is your greatest business concern right now?
West: Our business — advising tenants on their office space — is based on our clients having a strong sense of their long-term future. Specifically, they need to have a picture of where their business is going, their revenue models and how real estate will help them achieve their business goals. For the vast majority of organizations, an event such as COVID-19 puts all long-term business plans on hold, and the focus shifts to the immediate. As a result, most organizations are in a wait-and-see mode. Wait-and-see means very few transactions in the near term, and that is a short-term concern.
Over the long term, organizations might start to question the benefits of maintaining a physical office and consider only getting together as a team on an as-needed basis. As we are all seeing — and now starting to read about — working from home is not a complete solution. You can get stuff done at home but it’s much harder for an organization to move ahead without in-person contact. The efficiency and creativity that come from face-to-face interactions is immeasurable, and critical. We are counseling clients not to look only at the bottom-line cost of real estate, but to consider the top-line benefits of the culture, energy, insight and innovation that is generated when people work in the same physical space.
Bisnow: What was your lowest low and the highest high these last few weeks?
West: On March 15 we made the call to work from home. It was scary to look into an abyss of what impact this epidemic could have on our people, our clients and our business. The lowest low has been as a business owner, and thinking about the 27 people my partners and I are responsible for, a responsibility we take seriously. We are not laying off or furloughing anyone. Not being together physically as a team is hard, so we’ve implemented weekly company Zoom lunches and biweekly team calls.
The calls with our WLS team have been a real highlight of the quarantine, but my birthday last week was the best! My family arranged for more than 12 relatives to be on a Zoom disco dance party call, which was a blast — what joy to see and hear the laughter of the people I love most. And no, we will NOT be sharing the video.
Bisnow: What are you doing at home to keep your sanity?
West: Routine, routine, routine. The routine is for me and the entire family. We have a family motto — not an original thought, but important — don’t let a crisis go to waste. I am charting out things to do, getting focused and organized, which for me is the only way to get ahead.
Bisnow: What have you learned about your business or the industry in the last few weeks?
West: We are a people business. There is a benefit to technology, and we can use it to get a great deal done and be more efficient, but to move forward, people need to be together. You can connect with clients and give presentations using technology but at some point, that can’t be a substitute for face to face for meetings and tours.
Bisnow: How do you think the coronavirus could permanently affect the way real estate does business?
West: COVID-19 will fundamentally change the commercial real estate landscape — we are at an inflection point. It will take a while to measure the full extent of how this pandemic will change how we use public spaces. We are used to packing people into restaurants sometimes less than 2 feet apart, but we may not be able to in the future. It will impact how people prioritize spending time and money. Do you need to go to the gym or can you work out in the park? Do you need to eat out four times a week? What’s the right mix of in-person and telework, and how does that impact the amount of space an organization needs? What locational priorities are most important for a business?
Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about today?
West: I am most hopeful for a few things. First, I’m sensing a lot of empathy for those who have been impacted by this period. We are all in this situation together. I’m also sensing gratitude about the fundamental things in our lives that we took for granted in the past, such as our jobs, ability to freely congregate and simply being grateful for one another. I already have a new appreciation for the people I haven’t been able to spend time with during this quarantine who were regularly in my life. That makes me hopeful that when we get back to our “normal” life, our perspectives will be a little more grounded and compassionate.