Returning to Work: Positioning Your Office for a Successful Transition

The long-term view is more about repurposing and reimagining the office, according to Chris Barbier of Yardi Systems Inc.
Chris Barbier

As states begin to reopen, more and more workers are inclined to return to the office, according to a recent Gensler survey and a Yardi Systems Inc. executive briefing on June 24. Zoe Hughes, the chief executive officer of NAREIM, moderated a panel that included Joseph Anfuso, the chief financial officer at MG Properties; Joe DiSalvo, the senior vice president at RXR Realty; and Patrick Irwin, the chief administrative officer at USAA Real Estate.

The fact that each state is operating under its own set of reopening timelines and the lack of uniformity in what managers deem to be a safe time to welcome employees back further complicates matters.

That being said, only 12 percent of workers said they wanted to work from home full time, according to the aforementioned survey. The number was higher among Anfuso’s employees— roughly 25 percent. Still, a large majority of workers supported either a part-time or full-time transition back into the workplace.

DiSalvo explained that of the 30 percent of his staff who did not want to reenter the workplace yet, most labeled themselves as high-risk or stated that childcare was the main impediment during the pandemic.

Reopening milestones

Irwin admitted it was extremely tough to forecast what the number of employees in the office will look like, even in the near-term future, but the company has a goal of returning to 50 percent capacity by September 1. All three panelists on the briefing stated that their companies are in the first wave of reopening, either at a small percentage of capacity starting in mid-to-late June, or on a voluntary basis for alternating in-office and at-home days. None of them are currently allowing guests into their facilities, which seems to be one of the few unanimous decisions across states in different phases of reopening.

One of the toughest aspects of returning to work is the fact that different employees need the office to varying degrees. Many workers have reported discomfort without certain amenities at home such as printers, additional monitors, reliable connectivity or access to paperwork and files.

Would those who need the office for more productivity get access first? Would the younger age demographic get access first, being in the lowest-risk group? Would those who rely on public transit get to stay at home longer due to high risk commutes? These are all questions that create difficult decisions for executives, and each one could have a different response based on the data from their city and the responses from employee surveys. These surveys are extremely important to gauge staff attitudes about returning to the office and what they need to remain productive if working remotely. Be careful with the wording on these surveys, said DiSalvo, because “Can you return to the office?” is different from “Do you want to return to the office?”

Offices also cannot reopen until they’ve reached benchmarks in preparation. Beyond having ample sanitary supplies and consistent cleaning measures, many offices are reconfiguring space to allow for distancing between desks, in conference rooms and in common areas. Elevator use is a major concern as well, especially when large groups funnel in and out of a building at rush hour. To combat some of these issues, RXR has been able to open up satellite offices at RXR-owned properties, a concept discussed recently by Jeff Adler of Yardi Matrix at the GWA virtual conference. This helps workers who want to be in an office environment but don’t feel safe commuting into Manhattan, for example. RXR has also implemented scattered start and end times for the portion of staff that is back in an office.

Mara Hauser, the founder & CEO of 25N Coworking, detailed the steps her business took prior to reopening, which included health check-ins, temperature checks, marking directional walkways in the office, banning “water cooler” style gatherings and installing vertical partitioning between desks as needed. Until a business can satisfy these milestones, offices may need to remain closed.

The future of the office

“People still expect deliverables with no excuses, so you have to find a way to adjust schedules and be okay with it,” Anfuso stated. That is the prevailing factor that business owners and managers have to consider. Whether it’s vendors, investors, prospects or clients, deadlines still have to be met. Data still needs to be reported and distributed. Accounts need to be kept in good standing. It has been shown, however, that productivity has largely remained consistent in work-from-home settings—one of the biggest reasons why a gradual return to normalcy hasn’t been met with more of a rush to get workers back in office.

Communication will play a bigger role than ever. Invite investors on weekly or biweekly calls and consistently share updates with employees. Maintaining the culture and feel of a traditional office is key, and communication via calls or video makes everyone feel more engaged with your brand. DiSalvo’s team created a tenant-facing app to share building protocols, a health and wellness index, amenity access updates and a chat function to answer questions in real time.

“Long term, we believe strongly in culture and collaboration and want to be back in the office full time. But short term, we’ll be fully flexible,” said Irwin.

This has been a bit of a wake-up call for employees themselves, too. There is a growing sense that employee benefits could now include optional remote work times. Based on data that shows Americans spend close to an hour in commute time daily, workers who can perform at an equal —or sometimes even higher—level at home, could be saving over 200 hours of commute time per year. As an employer, if productivity remains high, this could be a best-case scenario to mitigate overcrowded office times.

In a similar direction to what Adler posed in his presentation, DiSalvo believed there may be decreased office demand in some cases, but what happens when businesses continue to grow and can no longer abide by distancing regulations? This may be a case where office demand actually grows, especially in suburban areas.

The long-term view is more about repurposing and reimagining the office. Will retail suffer to the point where malls change their offerings and floorplans? Could the coworking model of flexible space prove more successful to maintain social distancing than a cubicle setting? As a society, we are more aware of our abilities to thrive in nontraditional circumstances now, and more tech advances are being driven out of a lack of physical interaction.


Chris Barbier is an industry principal of investment management at Yardi Systems Inc.