A CBRE survey of office occupiers in Ottawa offers evidence that, far from being a doomsday scenario for office buildings, the COVID-19 pandemic is simply causing a rethink of work habits.
The survey found fewer than 12 per cent of respondents were even considering closing up their offices for good in favour of a work-from-home model. It was conducted during May while the Ontario economy was still largely shut down due to the pandemic.
“What’s particularly interesting is very few are contemplating shedding their office footprint altogether. Amongst our respondents, only 11 per cent are even thinking about it over the long term,” said David Glick-Stal, a sales representative in CBRE’s Ottawa office and one of those involved in compiling the survey.
Even more telling, he said, is the companies considering giving up all their office space tended to be smaller users, they represented just four per cent of office space included in the survey.
“I don’t see anything close to the death of the office.”
This despite recent announcements by several major companies, including Ottawa-based Shopify, that they will allow significant numbers of their employees to work from home on a permanent basis.
Citing confidentiality promises to participants, Glick-Stal declined to identify firms which took part in the survey.
Ottawa office occupiers keep options open
CBRE compiled data from 125 Ottawa respondents comprising about 1.5 million square feet of the city’s 41-million-square-foot office sector. It covered both private and public sector users in a cross-section of sectors.
Glick-Stal said of that 11 per cent, most were still considering other options as well depending on how the pandemic plays out during the coming months.
“One step further, many of those people who are contemplating that in the future, are also contemplating going to higher-quality buildings with more advanced HVAC,” he said. “So it’s very much not clear today that there will be a material shedding of space.”
He acknowledged that considering the potential life span of this pandemic, which could play out over another year or two depending on whether a vaccine is created, we are still in the very early stages.
“Many organizations are taking a short term-based approach. A lot of information they are still waiting to come in; 58 per cent of respondents thought it was still too early to tell how their offices might be impacted over the next five years,” Glick-Stal said.
Challenges for managers, staff
The survey illustrated challenges managers and staff face while working from home.
“The other thing that was quite noteworthy is that people are struggling without a centralized place to be. Employees, the No. 1 concern that they’ve been voicing is the lack of social connection, with 74 per cent of respondents declaring that to be their biggest concern.”
Glick-Stal said the survey responses and conversations with occupiers identified several positives and negatives for work-from-home employees. One positive is that work-from-home technologies have worked well in most cases.
“While there have been many challenges – not everyone has been happy – and there could be many challenges to come, the technology has mostly proven effective.”
Social interaction and collaboration dominated the negatives, along with work-life balance:
“I think the shared experience of many who are working from home (includes) working there in small quarters, who are unable to collaborate with their colleagues as easily, who may be struggling trying to work while providing child care, who might be having a challenge differentiating between their work and their home, that work-life balance.
“If you don’t leave your home, where is the separation?”
Managers cited several significant challenges, all having to do with communication.
“(The) top three challenges organizations were facing all had to do with their people. Managing from a distance No. 1, laying off employees, but also keeping everyone motivated and in the loop,” Glick-Stal said.
“That part was surprising. I thought it would be a more immediate focus on more operational.”
Incorporate more flexibility
He believes offices will continue to be important hubs for most companies, even as they retool corporate workflows.
“While 88 per cent of respondents foresee more work from home in the future, it is not to be confused with the importance of their offices to their organizations,” he said.
“Part of the challenge today is that they have to work from home. Part of the challenge in the past might have been that they may have had to work in the office.”
Many employees are discovering they can work from home, at least at times. Companies too are discovering what works and what doesn’t.
They also must reconfigure office footprints, at least temporarily, to accommodate social distancing. Finding a happy medium for working at home and in the office could ease this transition for both sides.
“I think in the future, employees will be seeking to retain some level of flexibility on whether they work from home or in the office,” Glick-Stal said.
Some companies had already created varying degrees of unassigned or “hot desking” areas for staff working remotely at times.
The survey found 23 per cent of respondents are considering transitions to “unassigned desks to help incorporate a more flexible work arrangement and potentially shelve a portion of their office space.”
An additional 16 per cent said they foresee possibly increasing office space to provide for social distancing.
“I think it’s possible some of these measures could be offsetting,” Glick-Stal said.