Has the Office Sector Turned a Corner?

September 15, 2022 • John Salustri

While property managers and city officials beat the drum for getting people back in offices and commercial business districts, occupancy numbers still lag—significantly in some cases—pre-COVID-19 levels.

As Avison Young reports, although there has been a steady increase in foot traffic in major cities, that tracks “significantly below” prior to the start of the pandemic. “The widespread return after major holidays, and after diminishing health-related concerns that many hoped for has yet to materialize,” it noted.

Property professionals are feeling the pinch, though the degree of pain varies from city to city. CommercialEdge data bear this out. “In June, the national vacancy rate ticked down 20 basis points month-over-month, but year-over-year it registered a 20-basis-point increase, stabilizing at 15.2%,” the firm said. “Office markets where vacancy rates trended down in June remained concentrated in the Sunbelt and areas with significant life science industries.”

Boston was the national bellringer in terms of occupancy in June, and the only one in the Top 50 cities to log a vacancy below 10 percent (9.6% to be exact). Houston and Atlanta sustained the highest occupancy vacancies, at 23.8 percent and 20.3 percent, respectively. CommercialEdge put Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., at 14.0 percent; Chicago at 19.5 percent and San Francisco at 17.4 percent.

Just as vacancies vary from city to city, they also fluctuate from property to property. “Prior to the pandemic,” recounts one property professional, “on a typical weekday, we would have around 3,500 people in the building.” In April 2020, it dropped to about 200. “So, it went down to less than 10 percent of the previous normal,” he said. “Then we had a very nice upward swing through the fall of 2020.”

Ebbs and flows occurred as COVID-19 vaccines were distributed, mask mandates were lifted and then variants (such as delta and omicron) began to spread.

With adjustments for local attitudes, this pattern is being replicated in many cities. “The reality is that recovery is coming in fits and starts,” one source said. “As soon as we think we’ve turned the corner…we see new variants of COVID, and that changes the dynamic.”

But if that’s the case, how can the office sector make progress towards a sustained recovery? The answer, at this point, seems to be in keeping the conversation alive with tenants and their employees about what makes the office so valuable.

BOMA International spoke with a number of industry experts about the role property professionals are taking in this time of major transformation for the industry in its 2022 Deep Dive No. 3: A Time of Reinvention for Offices and Cities. Read the Deep Dive to discover how employers are increasingly embracing hybrid work schedules, while property professionals seek ways to ensure their buildings are healthy, modern and inviting.

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 GlobeSt.com. Prior to launching GlobeSt.com, Salustri was editor of Real Estate Forum.