HOW TO SELL OFFICE SPACE WHEN THE WORLD WORKS FROM HOME
Written by: Cal Axe
As a Brokerage Associate, Cal Axe specializes in commercial office leasing, sales, and occupier services in the greater Columbus area. Before his career in brokerage, he joined Colliers as a research analyst: a position that requires extensive knowledge of the Columbus office market. His experience in research and brokerage makes him extremely knowledgeable in the industry. Keep reading to get Cal’s take how to sell people on office space when they’re working from home.
I post videos on Instagram and LinkedIn each week. Nothing crazy, just 20-second clips of me answering commonly asked questions about commercial real estate and the future of office space. My LinkedIn audience loves the content. In fact, an executive at a Los Angeles tech company recently expressed how much he looked forward to the posts. My Instagram audience, however, made up of fraternity brothers, high school basketball teammates, and ex-girlfriends, are puzzled — they’re not sure what to make of it. I don’t blame them. It’s a bit like a used car salesman crashing the court at Versailles. Anyway, I received a disheartening DM from a college buddy.
“You sell office space?” it read. “You should quit your job.”
He was being cheeky, but it made me realize that the rest of the world was probably thinking the same thing. I’m here to say that despite COVID, companies are curious, if not interested, in office space again. The demand confuses me as well, so I’ve asked my clients why they want to go back to their irredeemably beige office buildings. Here’s what I was able to gather.
No matter what they tell you, managers just can’t manage on Zoom
I met with a start-up client the other day. The CEO was not interested in signing a new lease, but she was curious about how COVID had affected the market. I asked her what the problem was with WFH. “I don’t have a problem,” she said. “My managers have a problem. They can’t manage!” Managing a company is more than enforcing deadlines. Managers in the modern workplace are tasked with identifying fatigue and burnout among their team members, and, much like a football coach, they must know when and where to press the right buttons. Stress signals are easily missed during virtual meetings, which means employees are responsible for communicating their anxieties. Here’s the thing, it’s still competitive corporate America, don’t expect employees to communicate their faults with any consistency. Managing effectively while virtual is a major bug, but it’s not impossible to overcome. Yet, many managers and CEOs have a hard time visualizing what that looks like. Until that happens, office space is your insurance.
Will we ever have the infrastructure?
In 2015, Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom published a WFH study that rocked the white-collar workplace at its core. To this day, it’s the most cited piece of research in the debate between WFH and office space. The study surveyed 1,000 employees at a Chinese Travel Agency called Ctrip, who volunteered to WFH for nine months and have their performance monitored. The volunteers saw a 13% performance increase, and the company recorded a 50% drop in employee quit rates. WFH didn’t just bump productivity, it was as if all the volunteers were injected with PEDs. There’s an interesting caveat, however, that even Dr. Bloom has pointed out. You could only volunteer for the study if you had a home office, which meant you could not work in your bedroom, living room, or kitchen. You had to work in a closed room specific for office use. This is decidedly different from the average WFH experience. The initial concern about WFH was the exposure to new distractions. Employees were no longer just managing their job but managing their kids who were now taking online classes, their jacked-up dogs with a newfound burst of daytime stimulation, and unfolded laundry. Studies show that people have performed well despite the distractions, but I wonder if that’s merely a wartime measure: People working harder, given the circumstances. Will families sustain the same level of productivity during peacetime?
What about postgraduates living with roommates?
And what about postgraduates? Four of my college friends moved to NYC after graduation and rented a small 3-bedroom 1 bath apartment in lower Manhattan. That’s right, four boys shared a shower, and someone slept on the couch in exchange for less rent. It’s typical for postgraduates to sacrifice homey comforts to live and work in cities — that culture will not likely subside after COVID. This poses two challenges for companies. One, you’re not going to be as engaged when your fraternity brothers are working from the same coffee table. Two, it’s a serious risk to a company’s privacy and security.
We simply cannot collaborate and generate ideas from home.
Ideas are crucial to a company’s growth (now more than ever), and it’s hard to find a replacement for the number of ideas birthed from collaboration. One of the great things about the office is that it’s basically Murphy’s Law in action, ideas forming from happy accidents and collisions between people from different backgrounds and perspectives. Zoom enables us to communicate across distances more effectively than email, text, and phone calls, but virtual meetings eliminate the possibility of spontaneous run-ins that so many times lead to creation.
Not everyone likes working from home
Productivity has always functioned on a bell curve. Some people need isolated areas, free from distraction to complete detailed/focused work, while others feed off people’s energy to stay happy and motivated. I’ve learned a lot about myself over quarantine, including how and when I get my work done. I found that I’m the most creative at home in the mornings without distractions, and I’m free to let my mind wander and create my next content piece or article — I could never do that at the office. However, part of my job requires high energy — pick up the phone and call strangers type of energy. I can’t manufacture that buzz at home. Now, I knock out my creative work in the mornings at home and come into the office in the afternoon to bang out my calls for the day.
My perfect workplace plan
Please don’t think I’m against WFH. I’m 100% for it. We have the technology to accomplish our work from just about anywhere and avoid the stress of commuting and dressing up each day. A little work from home will be good for everyone. According to a recent study, 73% of companies plan to incorporate some sort of WFH initiative. What that initiative is will differ depending on the needs of the company. But if you’re a CEO interested in office space again and not sure what to do, feel free to use my initiative as a guide.
1) Flex scheduling: Retain a dedicated physical office and allow employees to work from home 2–3 days per week. 2–3 days working from home is an excellent reprieve from the stress of commuting while providing ample time to come in and partake in collaborative teamwork.
2) Teach how to work from home: WFH is still a foreign concept to most people. HR departments need to make WFH part of their training regimen for new hires. How to effectively communicate and share information across distances and eliminate the distractions that come with working at home, like Netflix, roommates, and dogs.
3) More communication: If your team meeting was once a week, maybe it’s time to make it every day. I know this seems crazy, but this is a measure to protect against a greater distraction, loneliness. People are more happy, alert, and cheerful when in the presence of others.
Managers must learn to create camaraderie, even if it’s just the illusion of camaraderie.
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