Throughout history there have been instances when a singular event changed how we did business..forever.
One of my final business courses in college 20+ years ago concluded with my Professor urging us to give careful thought as to what employer we tied ourselves to in the future. “If you work for a company whose way of doing business does not seem to change, start looking for another job. That is a business, that will be out of business, soon enough.” This statement could not have been more true. I have reflected on it often as I have witnessed the change in retail over the last two decades. Retailers that embraced the internet are surviving the “Amazon Effect”. Those who clung to their paper catalogs and expensive shopping mall leases have slowly faded away.
How will COVID-19 change business?
The Business Law Southwest office encompass an entire floor in a multi-story office building in downtown Albuquerque. Prior to mid-March of this year, our days were full of commuting, conversations, meetings, lunch breaks with co-workers and clients drifting in and out of our conference rooms. Then, a Stay at Home Order was issued and, much like the rest of the world, we all basically went home and have stayed there ever since.
It has been during this uncertain time I started analyzing our expenses looking for ways to save or cut back. It has come as a bit of a jolt to realize that, the office space that we thought we so desperately needed, is maybe, something we do not? Especially when like most businesses, the expense associated with our rent is only eclipsed by non-negotiable expenses such payroll and benefits. The question now becomes can a business like ours do without a traditional office space in this unfolding “brave new world”? Or at least can the scale of what we thought we needed be cut back significantly? Had we the ability to save ourselves thousands of dollars a month, for years, but were simply too caught up in tradition of “going into work” to not see it?
This pondering is not unique to us these days and the commercial real estate landscape is already about to change significantly all over the country. Most recenlty and notably, executives from three of New York Cities largest commercial tenants, Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley have decided that it is unlikely all of their workers will ever return to their former office buildings that are spread out across Manhattan. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/12/nyregion/coronavirus-work-from-home.html
The COVID-19 crisis created a need for companies to figure out how to get their employees to work effectively from home and that challenge was met.
Working from home has been positive for many employees. They are not looking forward to returning to their former office spaces any more than business owners are eager to keep paying the rent on them.
Global Workplace Analytics, a San Diego-based research firm recently published an analysis of work-from-home preferences based on a survey of 3,000 employees globally. In the report, the number of employees who said they worked at home at least one day a week rose from 30% before COVID-19 to 80% currently. About 77% of the 80% who are now working from home say they want to continue doing so in the future.
While transitioning to working from the office to working from home was rather easy in our situation, (We were a paperless office with an in house IT team even before the Covid -19 Crisis hit.) the success hasn’t come with without a few casualties.
The sense of community and culture we once shared as a team has slipped. Our rituals of group coffee sipping and spontaneous collaboration has suffered. We have encountered unexpected new challenges that we find we don’t always have the skill set for; such as deciphering email for clues to the the author’s mood/ meaning since we are lacking the ability to observe it first hand. Some of our clients, impassioned and unsure of the circumstance surrounding their legal issues, still ask for in- person meetings despite the concerns associated with gatherings. Zoom meetings and conference calls, while tremendously helpful in these instances, simply do not convey the human connection we all crave. Diana Williams documented similar observations in an article she wrote for The Sacramento Bee stating, “People whose jobs hinge on brainstorming, or who thrive on serendipitous interactions, have been at a disadvantage.” https://www.sacbee.com/news/business/article242648821.html
So, what will the “Covid-19 Effect” have on commercial office space for this law firm? We will still require in person interaction with our clients and with each other. However, COVID-19 has shown us that we don’t have to all be under one roof to function as an effective team.
Perhaps our future offices will be similar to what we have today-basically consisting of a lobby, conference rooms and a back office. However unlike our current back office that consists of 6000+ square feet of individual office spaces, it may look more like a small business lounge in an airport. Pleasant, peaceful, and organized. A place to plug in your laptop and comfortably get some work done in between meetings. Until, that is, you can get back to your “home” office.
We still have a several months left on our lease. I know that in the future weeks we will be giving great consideration to what really makes sense for the way we will be doing business in the future. I would urge all of you business owners out there with leases maturing to do the same. Certainly, it is important to maintain a corporate culture and create an effective space for collaboration and innovation, but does your company need to provide a desk for everyone? Do your employees even want one? Perhaps the future is investing less in office spaces and more in technology to allow employees to work seamlessly from home.
I feel that the answer to the future of office space will be different for every business. However, one thing is clear. A few months ago, we were all forced to collectively jump into the deep end of the “working from home” ocean. It turns out, a lot of us have proven to be great swimmers. As a result, the 9-5 workday and large office spaces may very well be a thing of the past.
Do you have a commercial lease on a space that is no longer conducive to the way your business operates since COVID-19? Would you like to discuss your options with an attorney? Contact us today