Ed Silvey

As Massachusetts continues a phased reopening, the full economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is still unknown. Business owners face an unpredictable future, yet one thing is certain: work will not be the same for some time. 

As business leaders focus on continuity, many are adjusting to the “new normal.” This period is somewhat of a stress test for essential functions and remote work. It may also become a reset moment, a time to assess business priorities and right-size budgets to support profitability in the future. 

Once restrictions are lifted and traditional business resumes, the workplace will likely be different. With these changes ahead, now is a time to examine commercial real estate needs and plan for the next chapter. 

Space Needs Will Change  

Many large companies have already committed to extending work-from-home programs well into 2020 and beyond. While many companies may anticipate fewer employees in the office, accommodations for social distancing may mean that there is no significant net change in overall space needs.  

The shift to remote work is likely to continue as companies have  by necessity  adopted this new model. Compounded with workforce reductions, a remote work model means fewer people in the office. If office tenants believe this pattern will continue, many will likely need to reconsider how much space is essential.  

This evaluation of staffing levels should be considered hand-in-hand with the need for physical distancing. Depending on an office’s layout, it may be necessary to adjust seating arrangements upon returning to work in order to maintain distance of six feet between staff members.  

Looking ahead, dedicated workstations may be more the norm, and workspaces shared by multiple staff members will require cleaning between each use. This regular cleaning will also be needed if staff members return to work in shifts to minimize the numbers of employees on site. 

Spaces that serve as impromptu gathering spots, such as common area meeting spaces and soft seating areas, may need to be reclaimed in order to make way for larger dedicated workstations or provide room between staff in open floor plans. An architectural or interior design team can help envision potential scenarios. Cummings Properties, a commercial real estate developer with properties along the Route 128 corridor, offers in-house design and construction services and supports clients with both plans and buildouts. 

Evaluating HVAC Systems 

It has been reported that building heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems play only a small role in the transmission of infectious diseases such as COVID-19, and that the basic principles of social distancing and good hygiene are far more important. 

While keeping this individual responsibility in mind, talk with your property manager to better understand HVAC systems. Some steps can be taken to enhance filtration and fresh air intake, including: upgrading the filters in most HVAC units to those with a higher level of filtration, increasing building exhaust fan run times and fresh air intakes to the maximum levels allowable for effective and sustainable operation, and maximizing the amount of fresh air in their suites by running HVAC fans more frequently.  

Keep in mind that more fresh air intake and exhaust is helpful, but can be a challenge to properly condition incoming fresh air in high summer and winter. Operable windows are also a plus for drawing fresh air. 

Are Suburbs a Better Fit? 

Given the high rental prices for downtown commercial real estate and desire for more space, suburban office locations are quickly gaining appeal. Companies are already thinking about reducing their commitment to dense, shared office space and moving to a more flexible model that allows for corporate headquarters or satellite offices closer to home for many staffers. 

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, commuters to Boston and Cambridge faced daily gridlock. And with many workers legitimately concerned about potential spread of germs when traveling via public transportation, automotive traffic is likely to increase as staffers return to work. With ample parking, suburban offices provide an alternative to downtown commuter woes and peace of mind for employees who have concerns about traveling via crowded public transportation. 

With many commercial leases having terms of three or five years, there is likely a penalty for early termination. Current tenants must weigh this against the potential savings of leasing a smaller space or a location outside of Boston and Cambridge, where rents are at a premium. 

At the very least, tenants should use the present time to educate themselves about the market and what’s available. For life science companies, lab space is being rapidly developed in the suburbs, with cities such as Woburn and Beverly establishing robust biotech communities. New developments for lab, office, and high-tech manufacturing space are currently underway along the Interstate 95 corridor, such as the new Dunham Ridge campus on the North Shore. Many developers and brokers now offer virtual tours, making the opportunity to view a space as easy a Zoom call. 

Ed Silvey is the leasing manager for Woburn-based Cummings Properties. 

Suburbs Hold Advantages for Office Tenants

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min