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May 07, 2021

Could ‘workplace consultants’ steer companies back to the office?

Real Estate Workplace

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Photo of a peson working in office space Marc Mueller/

More than 40% of the U.S. population has now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Cities like New York are saying they will fully reopen in July. For the first time in over year, it appears that progress against the pandemic may be truly turning the tide.

For many American workers and their employers, however, it has also been more than a year since they’ve worked in an office setting, whether part-time or at all. The surprise, for many companies, is that remote work has gone better than expected. And new habits, when they work well, die just as hard as the old ones.

For much of the past year, considering the fate of the office has been largely speculative. Some large companies, like Twitter and Google, wasted little time saying they planned to keep work largely remote moving forward. Others, like Dell and Microsoft, have leaned into hybrid models that will likely become increasingly popular among companies of all sizes.

Regardless of whether or not a company and its employees want to return to work, there are real financial and functional questions that need to be addressed in terms of how best to do so.

The New York Times examined the life of a commercial real estate broker in the world of COVID-19 recovery. It’s an excellent article that highlights the challenges the industry faces in leasing space again. In Manhattan alone, there are some 102 million square feet of vacant office space.

As brokers scramble to provide flexible terms and offer more room for negotiation, their firms are recognizing an important category of their business that’s seeing more demand. Companies want advice:

The days of the workplace consultant have begun in earnest. As deals have dried up, brokers have begun folding such services into sales pitches as never before.

Workplace consulting practices, which many major real estate firms expanded over the past decade, offer to survey employees, analyze their attitudes, jobs and demographics, prospect office sites and strategize about floor plans.

Before, businesses had little interest in spending on such services, according to Rebecca Humphrey, an executive vice president at Savills and head of the Workplace Practice Group. “A client would say ‘I don’t want to pay for that, I just want this deal done,’” she said. “The pandemic has shifted that.”

There remains a lot of confusion in the business world about what the right path forward is going to be. There are questions about productivity, comfort, filtration, spacing and cost that are all being posed in new ways. And what commercial real estate brokers have is information — on what other companies are doing, what they’re thinking and how it’s working out.

At the end of the day, brokers are incentivized to get offices leased. They’re always going to paint a picture of optimism to achieve that goal. The difference today is that the terms are potentially more favorable to businesses and the conversations about their needs can take place more transparently.

As the Times notes, businesses may find that such consulting services can insulate them from the wrath of employees who don’t want to come back to the office. When the company does its due diligence and consults about its options, the decision to get back into the office is an easier and more anonymous sell. The future of the market still remains in limbo and likely will for several more years, the spring and summer of 2021 are going to tell us a lot in the fall about where businesses stand and what they’re willing to pay to reintegrate the office, whether they do so in full or in part.