The market for office space: Many companies not ready to make any major changes yet

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Town officials saw it coming, even before COVID-19.

“Office (space) has been a challenge for a while,” said John Scavo, Clifton Park’s planning director. “It’s a good thing we diversified our downtown.”

The fast-growing Albany suburb in 2012 introduced a town center plan that put fresh emphasis on residential development in its commercial core, and apartment buildings have been going up ever since. Typically, they’ve gone up in former parking lots or on open space.

But later this month, town planners will review a proposal to knock down three two-story office buildings, to be replaced by a four-story apartment complex.

But it was COVID-19, the contagious virus with no known cure, that drove office workers to set up shop at home as they isolated themselves.

The move went smoothly, far better than many observers would have expected.

Technologies like Zoom and Slack made it far easier to work from home while staying in touch with co-workers and others.

“There are competing dynamics” facing the office market, said Richard Sleasman, president of commercial real estate firm CBRE-Albany. “Companies and their employees are getting comfortable working remotely.”

Now that businesses are starting to reopen, companies are looking at their space needs with a critical eye, although they’re not ready to make any major changes yet.

“A lot don’t have answers,” Sleasman said. “They’re kicking the can down the road.”

Employers in many cases are willing to let staff continue to work from home, making decisions on an individual basis.

“Employee requests to continue working from home will be handled on a case-by-case basis,” said a spokesman from the state’s Office of General Services. “State agencies and authorities are being considerate with potential employee concerns about their in-person return and will continue to allow telecommuting for employees who are currently and satisfactorily working remotely, to the greatest extent possible, to ensure a smooth transition.”

Offices are being redesigned, with more space between desks, plastic shields and even procedures for bathroom use. Spacing out means that an employer might actually need more for the same number of workers.

“Companies were adding more bodies per (unit of) floor space,” Sleasman said. “Now floor planning is being set up for more offices, and space between offices.”

With barriers going up and larger cubicles, the once-popular open office plans could end up being a victim of the pandemic, he said.

Ventilating systems will be another concern. Are they up-to-date to the point that they can increase the flow of fresh air while filtering out small particles?

Buildings that are “Covid compliant,” might have an edge in an increasingly competitive office market. “Fifteen years ago, it was ADA-compliant” buildings, those that were accessible to those with disabilities, that tenants were seeking out, Sleasman said.

And while some employees may enjoy the comfort and the flexibility of working from home, avoiding a long commute, others may not.

In many cases, “people are so sick and tired of being holed up in their homes,” Sleasman said. “They want to be collaborative, collegial and social.”

Not too long ago, offices were being designe action among workers in different disciplines, as a way to foster the creativity and new ideas that interdisciplinary teams could produce.

When the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute opened in 2004, the concept emphasized the idea of mixing researchers from different fields to solve complex problems.

It was an interdisciplinary team of engineers who worked on solutions that would extend the life and effectiveness of N95 face masks early during the pandemic to address a shortage of the protective equipment.

Meanwhile, the true impact of COVID-19 on commercial real estate, may not be known for some time. Employers aren’t making any rash decisions.

“Kicking the can is an easier option than making the call” on office space, Sleasman said.

Posted by Albany Times-Union

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