Part I: Office
In the age of COVID-19, the real estate market is on a path to reinvention. In the period between now and when the health crisis subsides, real estate operators are seeking ways to facilitate people’s use of space. The return to normalcy will occur in stages for many real estate sectors, as safety concerns are balanced against the ability to resume using real estate in traditional ways. Achieving this balance is particularly complex in the office sector as the pandemic resulted in a substantial majority of the workforces in hundreds of countries being forced to work from home virtually overnight.
Today, as social distancing restrictions are lifting, some workplaces are reopening. Near-term considerations will center around keeping employees safe within the office setting. The longer-term question will be whether remote work persists as a permanent change for larger segments of the workforce. Technology will play a critical role in each stage.
Return to Work
While many jurisdictions are now reopening economies, most businesses have not yet returned to pre-pandemic operations. In the absence of a vaccine, many tenants and building owners are necessarily managing the crisis cautiously. In order to welcome employees and tenants back to the office, major adjustments to operations are required to conform with generally accepted health and safety considerations. Many aspects of pre-COVID office life will be changed in this period and technology will be a fabric of the new normal.
Access. Entry points will be restricted and monitored, including parking facilities and elevators, and timing to access will be staggered to accommodate social distancing. Using technology and data to allocate parking on a given day and to prevent overcrowding of elevators is becoming a common tactic. Sensory technologies provide automation and real-time occupancy information in these two contexts and also in other contexts within buildings. Employees may feel comfortable returning to work in offices with all the necessary health and safety measures in place, but may resist using crowded public transportation. In some cities where people are able to replace public transportation with driving, demand will likely increase for car parking facilities with technology that monitors and allocates available spaces. Once employees arrive at the building, to manage demand at access points throughout the workday, some offices are exploring reservation systems and designated queues based on building floor level. No-touch technology will also reduce the health concerns associated with frequently contacted building features like access kiosks and badge sensors, including garage touchless transponders, elevator panels, door handles and other entryways.
Density. In years preceding the pandemic, many tenants had shifted floorplans to utilize more open concepts, driven by the philosophy that this layout encourages employee-to-employee engagement and collaboration. COVID-19 health concerns will reverse that trend as social distancing will mandate higher office space utilization or de-densification by distancing workstations and perhaps staggering days in the office per employee or designated team. In flexible office spaces where multiple organizations cohabit in open floor plan environments, management teams will have to adapt such spaces to focus on this issue of density and related operational safety in order to continue to attract organizations to lease in this climate. Tracing applications and sensory technologies deployed through hardware and IoT devices can provide oversight of compliance with safety requirements (such as wearing masks), employee temperature monitoring, and proximity among employees and other building occupants.
Operational Safety. Ensuring indoor air quality levels and effectiveness of HVAC systems in filtering and circulating air flow is a key factor to mitigating the virus spread, according to health experts. Fresh air purging systems and air purification units are solutions. Building communication mechanisms and property management software systems between landlords, managers, tenants and employees also enhance safety by providing a communication channel for health information and occupancy monitoring, for example. Many pre-pandemic tenant experience platforms have shifted from providing tenants with social and community information to a focus on monitoring and reporting data on building and occupant safety and wellness metrics targeted at aiding workplace re-entry. Enhanced cleaning protocols, including robotic approaches, and the adoption of tracking technologies with sensory data showing hightouch locations will also be a short-term measure to reduce health concerns. Integrated systems will need to be in place to ensure that organizations can respond appropriately, whether through on-site mitigation or contact tracing data, to the scenario where an employee who has returned to the office contracts COVID-19.
Long Term Forecast
What will the new normal look like in the postpandemic office? The quarantine experience will result in some permanent shift to remote working as employees have generally adapted well to working from home with efficiency. Employers may also realize some long-term cost savings through shorter-term lease renewals or renegotiations for less overall square footage and flexible terms, and the demand for less expensive office space in suburban markets may grow as companies seek to avoid presence in high density urban centers. But for many tenants and employees, working in an office setting promotes productivity and collaboration along with a sense of belonging to an office community – both of which are difficult to replicate with remote work. There are also generational considerations such as entry-level engagement and integration, supervision and development, mental health considerations, inadequate home workspaces and networks and childcare duties which favor a view that the future of offices will consist of a balance between remote work and in-office presence. In the long term, landlords and tenants will increasingly have to work together to navigate these issues to create the type of office spaces where employees will want to return to work, with a focus centered on the health and safety of employees and visitors.
Regardless of what the exact balance will be, and it will vary by organization, culture and location, the office sector as a whole will sustain certain permanent changes. The technology that will allow operators and tenants to safely return employees to the office before a vaccine is widely available – data-driven programs, occupancy analytics, predictive maintenance, touchless access and mobility, and safety and wellness communications – should be adopted on a long-term basis. The health crisis mandates technological innovation in real estate to facilitate near-term reentry to offices, but real estate leaders should acknowledge that these innovations enhance tenant confidence and operational efficiencies, positioning the industry for sustainable long-term growth beyond the economic recovery.
Part II Preview: Hospitality
The next article in our Envisioning the New Normal: Real Estate + Technology series will focus on the hotel industry. As hotels reopen, they will need to adapt to a COVID-19 world which will require creativity to preserve the guest experience while maintaining distancing guidelines and adhering to safety standards. Hotel spaces and food and beverage outlets will need to be reconfigured to minimize contact and ensure proper distancing. Hotels will begin to compete with each other on safety, in addition to location, price and more traditional factors. Hotels will also need to continue to compete against technology-based alternative lodging platforms, with COVID-19 altering the competitive landscape.
Please visit Goodwin’s Coronavirus Knowledge Center, where firm lawyers from across the globe are issuing new guidance and insights to help clients fully understand and assess the ramifications of COVID-19 and navigate the potential effects of the outbreak on their businesses.