The Office Isn’t Obsolete, But the Old Ways of Thinking Are

December 2, 2021 • John Salustri

There will come a time—perhaps early in the new year, if the delta and omicron variants don’t get in the way—when corporate tenants return to their offices in droves. They will do so for all of the reasons you’ve already heard about—the collaboration, the camaraderie and the culture. But it will be a very different environment, thanks to changes created and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Meghan Tooman, vice president of Operations for DORIS Research, explained, “You can’t push the genie back into the bottle.” Tooman discussed the new workplace dynamic in her presentation, “The Office Isn’t Dead; Your Space Works Hard to Help You Work,” at the recent BOMA International Conference & Expo this fall.

In a series of surveys and in-depth interviews with corporate space users of all stripes, taken at different points in the pandemic, DORIS research uncovered some interesting takes on the subject of productivity and innovation. Specifically on the first score, she noted that there are two types of productivity, that with a “small p” and that with a “large P.” The first refers to the heads-down and task work that employees can do most readily at home. The second refers to the larger scope of strategic productivity, and that can suffer in an environment of isolation.

As tenants continue to transition to a hybrid work model, managers need to “narrow the Wild West,” she said, meaning that guidelines for work in the new normal need to be communicated clearly. Remote work doesn’t necessarily mean working from home, she noted, but, “Is it okay for human resources [staff] to take a call at a Starbucks?” Maybe not.

Collaboration was a challenge during the industry’s extended isolation, and impromptu conversations especially so. “They can occur, but they’re more laborious,” she noted, as workers try to coordinate between emails and phone and videoconferencing.

While there are clear lower-case productivity benefits that occur with a hybrid model, some of the challenges include the necessity for regular communications and messaging protocols, “so everyone will understand how it will work.” And so, no one will waste time trying to be impromptu and get only an away message—or come into the office, only find themselves on Zooms all day.

The need to tame the Wild West will be more difficult as flexibility is folded into the system, with some people working remotely and others office-based, and with onsite personnel changing dependent on the day of the week.

This is where a steady and fair hand become a managerial requirement. Trust is the key to a successful transition to hybrid work success, she said, but questions must first be answered: How will determinations of who stays in the office and who can work remotely be made? “What is the culture you want to create? Every other decision you make moves toward that.” Knowing this, what are the actionable next steps for property professionals operating the buildings these tenants call a (hybrid) home? For answers to that question, we have to turn to another session, “Buildings 2025: Challenges and Priorities,” during with a panel of commercial real estate experts weighed in.

Cleaning, sanitation and indoor air quality (IAQ) concerns are paramount among tenants certainly, but also for investors, reported Brenna Walraven, BOMA Fellow, president and CEO of Corporate Sustainability Strategies. And interest goes far beyond flowery words on mission statements. “Investors need detailed performance metrics.” It’s also gone far enough to charge tenants back at least for part of that cost. IAQ has become such an 800-pound gorilla that, “They’re more open to sharing those expenses.”

Transparency of a different sort is required at the tenant level, however, as Brian Harnetiaux, BOMA Fellow, executive director of Asset Management for USAA Real Estate, explained: Property professionals always handled the cleaning and the HVAC tuning needed to run buildings to maximize comfort and safety. “Now you need signage in your lobby,” he said, “you need visible sensors. That transparency and visibility is a key change because of the pandemic.”

Such communication is key, particularly in older buildings that carry the often-misplaced perception that they can’t compete with newer assets across the street or down the block. “Some older buildings with operable windows and patios” can have very effective IAQ, he added.

Buildings that help support a tenant’s drive for greater worker flexibility will also check off another box on the must-have list. “We’re seeing much more capital investment,” Walraven said. Included are such amenities as more outdoor environments to connect both for social or business purposes. “It’s a huge deal.”

Post-pandemic, there is a widening gap “between the haves and have-nots,” Harnetiaux stated. Tenants are looking for properties that will help them hire and retain talent, and also attract them back to the in-person office environment. “It’s that simple.”

About the Author

John Salustri is editor-in-chief of Salustri Content Solutions, a national editorial advisory firm based in East Northport, New York. He is best known as the founding editor of Prior to launching, Salustri was editor of Real Estate Forum.