With teleworking trends expected to persist, Ottawa brokers urge tenants to keep traditional office space

Telework
(Stock photo by Jacky Chiu on Unsplash.)

Brandon Yuke can’t wait to get back to the office ​– and he’s hoping many other people in Ottawa feel the same way.

Granted, as a commercial real estate broker with CBRE, Yuke has a vested interest in encouraging those of us who’ve been cooped up at home for the past three months to rejoin our colleagues in space that our employers probably rent. 

But he also insists that even if he weren’t in the real estate business, he’d still be champing at the bit to see his co-workers in person rather than on Zoom.

“I thrive off being around people,” he says. “There’s a lot that we just don’t get from being at home, and I think that real estate needs to be remembered as not just buildings or a place that we go to occupy space at work. It offers an experience and it offers an emotional connection for employees to their companies.”

Several high-profile tech firms, including Facebook and Shopify, recently made headlines with plans to shift to remote-first work policies once the COVID-19 lockdown ends. In the public sector, Transport Canada told its employees late last month that telework would be the “default” option even after the pandemic ends.

However, Yuke is urging his clients not to turn their backs on traditional office space. Earlier this month, Yuke penned an open letter to tenants detailing what he sees as the negative repercussions of the “digital by default” approach. 

Since it was posted on LinkedIn last week, Yuke’s appeal to renters of office space has garnered more than 3,000 views.

So far, he says, reader feedback to his post has been “very positive.” He acknowledges that some of his clients are leaning toward downsizing when their leases are up and says some employers are also looking at implementing policies calling for staff to work remotely a certain number of days each year.

Remote work here to stay

Yuke says the trend toward more flexible work arrangements is “a positive step forward, but I don’t think it’s going to be the end of office space.”

Yuke’s colleagues at CBRE Ottawa released a study this week that appears to back up some of his arguments – although it does suggest remote work will become more pervasive in a post-COVID world.

The real estate firm recently surveyed more than 125 local businesses and organizations that collectively rent in excess of 1.5 million square feet of office space in the Ottawa region. According to CBRE’s study, 12 per cent of respondents are considering a move toward an entire remote workforce within the next five years, with those organizations representing four per cent of the total office footprint.

But the outlook for commercial office space remains murky at best. Nearly 90 per cent of those surveyed said their employees will likely work from home more often in the post-COVID era, while six in 10 said it’s still too early to tell how their space requirements may change over the next five years.

More than half of respondents said employees are “adapting fairly easily” to working from home, suggesting it’s likely to become a permanent fixture at more companies in the future, says CBRE Ottawa broker David Glick-Stal, one of the authors of the study.

“Everyone has proven to varying degrees it can work,” he says. “Employees are likely to want to hold on to that option, albeit not exclusively.”

But the fact that nearly nine in 10 companies surveyed also said they intend to maintain at least some physical presence indicates the office as we know it is far from obsolete, he adds.

“What’s clear from the report is the work-from-home trend will accelerate post-COVID, but that certainly won’t eliminate the need for office (space),” Glick-Stal says. 

While almost a quarter of those surveyed said they expect to move from dedicated desks to unassigned work cubicles to accommodate a “permanently rotating remote workforce in less space,” 16 per cent of respondents said they plan to look at boosting their floorplates to allow for more physical distancing between employees. 

About half of tenants surveyed also say they plan to alter office layouts to accommodate physical distancing measures, while nearly two-thirds expect to do a phased re-entry of employees into the workplace.

Yuke says adapting to the post-COVID reality could include solutions such as replacing some desks and cubicles with “hublike” work stations where remote employees could use office equipment such as photocopiers. 

Whatever approach tenants ultimately decide to take, he advises them to think carefully before they embark on any extreme makeovers.

“Don’t blow up your office and start from scratch.”