The rise of virtual offices will change commercial real estate

Mike Kushner, Contributing Writer//May 27, 2020

The rise of virtual offices will change commercial real estate

Mike Kushner, Contributing Writer//May 27, 2020

In Part I “National and Local Impact,” we talked about the shift to virtual office space and its impact on commercial real estate vacancies both locally in Central Pennsylvania and at a national level. Now we’re taking a deeper dive into the future of commercial office space as the world adjusts to virtual work environments, a looming recession, and how the commercial real estate market must adjust to stay afloat. 

A new work-from-home paradigm

When it comes to navigating the new work-from-home paradigm, we can expect “work-from-home” policies to be established to assure proper decorum, productivity standards, communication, and online protocols. Also watch for the adoption of four-day work weeks, shorter workdays, and greater reliance on technology for current employees. Extensions of sick leave “banking” and “healthy-to-come-to-work” standards are likely to become commonplace. 

From the tech side of things, the use of platforms like Zoom, GoTo Meeting and Blue Jeans video conferencing technology will become more popular alternatives than traditional in-person meetings. There will also be an increased expectation that these meetings will be as, or more, productive than in-person meetings. Board management software and other secure online document management such as DocuSign, DropBox and shared drives could electronically account for 70% to 75% of all “approval” transactions, for businesses that require such. Robust CRM (customer relationship management) platforms will be used increasingly to interact with customers and clients. Additionally, automation and outsourcing could replace 20% – 30% of employees who perform clerical, accounting, and administrative functions. 

A looming recession

No matter how you look at things, the bottom line is that this pandemic will push the U.S. into a recession. There’s simply no way around it, at least immediately. Overall GDP growth in 2020 is expected to decline 10% to 13%, which would be the deepest recession on record. Some expect unemployment to rise to 10% – 15%, or higher, assuming a COVID-19 peak occurs by the 3Q.

The Central PA region has been significantly impacted by the coronavirus. As of first quarter, the country closed up businesses and the federal government is estimating it will take months before there is a return to normalcy. There is no telling how long the shut out will occur, or what impact it could have on the Central PA office market, though it will likely be immense. Unemployment numbers are beginning to spike, and in the coming weeks, it is likely that hundreds of more businesses could fail, even with the Governor’s promise of reopening the Commonwealth on May 8. Additionally, rents will likely decline as vacancies skyrocket, and construction and investment activity will likely remain extraordinarily limited through the remainder of 2020.

The fundamentals of how Americans live, work, shop and play have changed and will not return to historical norms of behavior, consumption and lifestyles. The year 2020 will be analogous to the impacts of and transformative changes resulting from the Great Depression [1929 – 1932], which took more than 10 years to recover.

Where do we go from here?

Commercial real estate must look at this as an opportunity to pause and pivot. The market prior to COVID-19 will not be the same market to which we will return. But we will return to something and we must learn to navigate this new landscape by remaining flexible, thoughtful, and strategic. Historically, Central PA has been able to withstand some of the most tumultuous economic storms on the past. Yes, gains are about to take a hard hit as the coronavirus tears through the commercial real estate world, but this only means we need to bear down an be open to opportunities wherever they may arise.

One of the hardest hit areas of commercial real estate will be new construction. With little supply underway at second quarter, and the coronavirus halting construction across the world, there is very little chance this market sees any notable projects deliver this year. Most projects since 2015 have either been build-to-suit efforts or significantly preleased prior to ground break.

With most new construction on hold, there could be the opportunity for existing office renovations. Many businesses may be looking to reconfigure their space to better isolate employees, adhere to whatever new social distancing protocols come from this, or install sanitary features like air purifying systems. Commercial real estate construction companies and developers would be wise to shift their focus to this type of work.

Another hard hit sector will be companies that provide shared and collaborative office space, like WeWork. In fact, society as a whole is likely to question the open office, collaborative workspace, and creative office floorplans. Many businesses and sole proprietors chose to cancel their memberships to such services during the pandemic and it will be exceptionally challenging to regain all that was lost once the stay-at-home orders are lifted. For those who have found that they can effectively work from their own home office spaces, they may continue to do so in an effort to lighten overhead costs. Others may have been hit so hard by the pandemic that there is not a business to which they can return, further reducing their need for office space. 

Again, the opportunity here is to reconfigure both the physical shared office spaces to be better isolated and sanitary, but also rethink the business model of how companies charge for space. Being flexible and fluid for business owners as they navigate the new normal is key right now.

To close on a positive note, the one clear winner in the office sector will be healthcare, medical office buildings, and biotech facilities. This sector is expected to grow 10% to 16% annually over the next decade as the entire local, county, state, and national healthcare facilities infrastructure and platform are reshaped, integrated and expanded as society mends and strengths as a result of a pandemic like the world has never seen.

About the Author: Mike Kushner is the owner of Omni Realty Group in Harrisburg.