Uncertainty surrounds corporate America’s return to the workplace. Employees at Google and Facebook are permitted to work from home until 2021. Capital One won’t require people to return until at least Labor Day this year; Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke tweeted their offices would remain closed until the end of 2021 and its 5,000 employees would continue to work remotely; and Twitter said its employees may never return to the office at all. And when many of America’s office spaces eventually do open up, the prevailing logic is to only allow between 5% and 35% to return at the outset.

In this landscape, leaders like Alexander Quinn, director of research for Northern California at Jones Lang Lasalle (JLL) finds comfort in data, which can play an important role in navigating this difficult decision. Quinn, who specializes in real estate development, economic forecasting, and urban regeneration, uses Tableau to track weekly data to determine which of his clients will return to offices as well as tracking shifts in demand in leasing activity. The following are excerpts from our conversation with Quinn, in his words. They have been lightly edited for content and clarity.

Single-rider elevators may exist in the near future [Photo: Flickr/Taro Shirakura]


The question of capacity

If we take a look at states like Texas and Tennessee that have opened up already, we see buildings allow roughly 25% capacity (to return to offices). Initially, that might be a bit optimistic, to be honest, just based on what we're learning about elevators and how quickly you can get in and out of buildings.

Statistical analysis tells us that if we go to a 25% occupancy level and follow a traditional 9-to-5 schedule, the worst-case scenario is we'll see hour-long waits to get through the elevator. For a lot of higher density buildings, that’s just the time it will take to go from your building into your office space. These are office buildings where JLL has businesses and it is based on traditional elevator shaft systems. This varies from building to building, but older buildings have fewer elevators with less response time. These could be less efficient and waits could be worse.

For the most part, companies are saying that between 5% and 20% of their workforce will comprise the first wave that will come back into the offices. And that's going to be on a voluntary basis.

In terms of just the numbers, what we know now is 5% of the workforce population who previously worked from offices could work from home permanently, coming in maybe once a month or once every two months or to a holiday party. We expect that number to grow to 10% of the population based on what we're hearing, according to Gensler’s U.S. Work From Home Survey 2020 (that anonymously polled 2,300 full-time workers at companies with 100 or more people). It’s employee-based responses.


The data on office density

If you talked to me in 2000, I would have said the average density per office employee was 350 square feet. That has shrunk over the last two decades to around 200 square feet per employee. With social distancing, we're looking at somewhere around 325 square feet per employee. So there are two poles on the spectrum: less people at work and more space per worker.

You must also consider: how many people feel comfortable coming back to work in the first wave? A segment of the population will say, “You know, until we have a vaccine in place, I'm not coming in.” But there's another segment eager to get back, be it because they're living with their parents, or they're social animals, or they really don’t get their work done in any meaningful way from home. So you're going to see these different ends of the spectrum that the company will need to weigh. It's not decided by some larger policy. The CDC won’t ever say that 25% of your workforce should come back immediately. Each business needs to start by asking its employees if they want to come back. This is the number one metric to look at and it’s going to be unique to the businesses.

But it’s unlikely you’ll get good cross collaboration in an office until you’re at least half full. You want to have multiple divisions in the same office together to allow for that critical cross collaboration. You want sales to talk to engineering; engineering to talk to marketing. You want the C-suite to overhear conversations of what’s going right and what’s going wrong. How do you do that with 25%? I don’t think you’re there yet.

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