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The challenges of returning to work after the COVID-19 confinement

man wearing a mask

While tech companies from Shopify to Twitter and Facebook plan to allow their employees to work remotely for the foreseeable future, “the office is not dead,” says Sean McCormick, Vice President, Real Estate for professional services firm KPMG, which is planning to reopen their offices in July after more than two months of forced closure due to COVID-19.

McCormick, who leads a team responsible for 55 locations and approximately 2 million square feet, was a panelist on a recent “Return to work” virtual event hosted by NATIONAL Capital Markets. He was joined by global commercial real estate experts Mark Fieder, Principal, President at Avison Young Canada; and Neil Lacheur, Principal, Executive Vice President, Real Estate Management Services at Avison Young Canada.

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“Employees need those watercooler moments, those interactions where business opportunities are built on a lead from one group to another. It’s very difficult to achieve those things in a virtual world,” said McCormick, noting that keeping everyone at home “is not conducive to the long-term health of our business.”

Toronto headquartered Avison Young has also begun opening offices—in Vancouver and Edmonton, where all but five of its 70 employees decided they preferred to go back into the office, says Fieder.

He cited a recent U.S. survey from the Gensler Research Institute, which found that only 12 percent of workers want to work from home full-time and 70 percent want to work in the office for the majority of the week.

Temperature checks and elevators management

While many employees may want to return, it won’t be easy.

In addition to the heightened cost for cleaning, managing the safe entry and exit of employees will be complex. Avison Young’s Lacheur says the single biggest challenge will undoubtedly be managing the elevators.

He estimates that, given physical distancing, it could take between 60 and 90 minutes in some office towers for workers to get into an elevator cab and up to their floor. And that is the easy part. Exiting is the real challenge.

“It will require people to be self-disciplined,” he said, noting a person’s tolerance to adhere to the rules may weaken considerably when the second or third elevator cab goes by with only two to three people on it.

“That could create confrontation,” he says.

Temperature checks are another challenge. KPMG has opted not to do temperature checks, but will instead rely on employees to self-declare their health status. Avison Young is recommending against temperature checks for its tenants.

“We are not medical professionals,” Lacheur says. “As a landlord, this is rife for challenges, like privacy issues, false-positive issues … It is really up to the individual occupants to control what is happening behind their space.”

Renegotiating leases

While many businesses plan to reopen their offices, the heightened use of remote working is leading many to wonder whether they can reduce their office footprint and renegotiate their lease, or add a specific COVID-19 clause.

Avison Young’s Fieder sees market conditions as the determining factor for any concessions between landlords and tenants.

“In downtown Toronto, we have a less than a two percent vacancy rate,” he says. “And that’s not structurally going to change any time soon. And I don’t think that there’s any tenant that’s going to be able to negotiate those kinds of clauses under these conditions.”

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