COVID and the office of the future | Athena Advisers

COVID ushers in the office of the future

Bright open-plan office space with a high vaulted ceiling, a wooden floor and adorned with lush green plants

The digital age had already touched off a debate about the future of the office. Technology that was increasingly making it possible for teams to connect across time zones and for work to get done whenever, from wherever, had already cast a shadow of doubt over the continued relevance of the traditional office model, as imagined in the middle of 20th Century. The coronavirus pandemic effectively tossed gas on the incipient flames of that debate, turning it, overnight, into a three-alarm fire.

What will emerge from the conflagration is still anyone’s guess, but experts converge around a few basic certainties. In a recent piece, the New York Times pithily summarised the most fundamental conclusion, opening the article with the reassuring assertion that “coronavirus won’t kill the office.” 

“If anything,” the 21 January story proclaimed, “it figures to be more dynamic than ever.”  

Since the start of the pandemic, around a year ago, a plethora of surveys of both employers and employees have sought to pinpoint the precise ways this new dynamism will play out. These surveys overwhelmingly support the Times’ thesis, suggesting that both bosses and workers are eager to get back to the office—just perhaps not in precisely the same way as before the pandemic. Most surveys suggest that a much-feared drop in employee productivity has not, in fact, come to pass, thus ushering in the possibility that many offices will allow for at least some remote work even after the pandemic is finally behind us. 

A poll by the consultancy PWC found that more than half of workers surveyed (52 percent, to be precise,) thought their productivity had improved over the prolonged work-from-home period. 

 And even studies that point to a modest decline in productivity, such as ones conducted in Japan and China, blame the dip on the presence of small kids in homes-turned-workplaces—a factor that presumably won’t be as much of an issue once schools reopen. An OECD report synthesizing a wealth of data on employee satisfaction with teleworking suggests there’s a sweet spot that tends to fall at around the halfway mark, meaning that a 50-50 split between office work and telework tends to make for the highest simultaneous employee productivity and satisfaction.

This, too, suggests that offices will continue to be de rigeur for most firms, although flexibility will be top of mind when seeking out new office spaces and securing leases going forward. A study by real estate behemoth JLL suggested that leases have gotten moderately shorter amid the pandemic.

Modern open-plan office with wooden desks and industrial details like breezeblock walls

“The trend over the last three decades was to lower the (office) square footage per person,” Tomasz Piskorski, the Edward G. Gordon Professor of Real Estate at Columbia Business School, said on a recent webinar. He said that in 1970, the average worker occupied 600 square feet (around 55 square meters), while by 2015, that square footage had dwindled to around 150 (or 14 square meters) but stressed that the pandemic stood to reverse the trend. “If you want to keep people in office spaces, you may have to socially distance them better—some regulations might require you to do that—so you might end up needing more office space per worker…and some prime office spaces might benefit from that.”

With the pandemic having accelerated changes in the commercial real estate market that were already playing out well ahead of COVID-19, experts agree that the key to a productive portfolio going forward is diversity—a mix of office properties, industrial and storage spaces, in addition to residential properties. The current uncertainty in the commercial real estate market makes it an ideal moment for bold investors to capitalize on all the benefits that commercial properties offer, including consistent long-term yields and secure assets during both high and low cycles. Another advantage of investing in commercial real estate is that it can offset the impact of inflation over time, as investors are able to increase their rental prices to reflect the inflation rate. Plus, it’s often possible to benefit from capital appreciation when selling assets in the future.

Take, for example, Portugal, where commercial yields can often outperform residential yields at around 4-7 percent. In 2019, the total sum invested in offices in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, reached €982 million—which was more than double the total a year earlier. And the first quarter of 2020, ahead of the pandemic, saw 44,000 square meters of office space in the city occupied, which is 5.2 percent higher than in the first quarter of 2019. To read more about the Portuguese commercial market, click here.

All told, the pandemic-induced uncertainty in the commercial real estate sector is a golden opportunity for those with the foresight to seize the moment.

“If you look at the commercial mortgage-backed securities market… you see there was a big increase in delinquency rates following the pandemic,” said Prof. Piskorski of the Columbia Business School. “Of course, these delinquencies are a benefit for some folks…. You have companies… that recently raised significant funds to invest in buying distressed mortgages and distressed properties, viewing it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to buy distressed assets.”

Home office in the Alps with a wooden desk and views over a snow-dusted pine forest