Telecommuting Was A Hit In The COVID-19 Shutdown. So Who’s Rushing Back To The Office?

By Andres Viglucci and Rebecca San Juan Miami Herald

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) For many business owners, the shutdown opened their eyes to new ways of doing business. Telecommuting or "working from home" is one of the trends that may be here to stay post-pandemic.

MIAMI

Tony Argiz, CEO of a big accounting and advisory firm with offices stretching from Coral Gables to New York and India, was a bit of a telecommuting skeptic. Until the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Literally overnight, Argiz's firm dispatched 700 employees home to work safely and remotely. After a slow start, business is now up 10% over last year, Argiz said. Telecommuting worked out so well that when more than half of his employees at Morrison Brown, Argiz & Farra told their bosses in a survey they wanted to keep working from home, executives readily agreed.

"We've been killing it on all cylinders," Argiz said. "So we're going to be accommodating. We're probably going to get no more than 40 to 45% of our employees to show up to the office. We're OK with that."

Argiz's experience is hardly unique. Miami-Dade County may be reopening for business, but not many people seem to be rushing back to the office.

Having discovered the joys, savings and surprising efficacy of having employees work remotely during the pandemic, executives and workers at a broad range of law, accounting and architecture firms, banks, public relations and marketing agencies and trade and business groups say they're perfectly content to keep doing so, at least in the near future, and quite possibly beyond.

To make one thing clear here: No, it probably won't spell the end of the office, as some pundits have posited. But none of the executives who spoke to the Miami Herald are demanding that employees return to their office desks right away, with some exceptions for essential personnel who need to be in-house, like tech teams maintaining servers.

When workers do come back, it could be to a very different sort of workplace.

Like Argiz, executives are carefully watching how the pandemic plays out as they get ready for the return of at least a portion of their employees who either prefer to or need to come back to the office setting. They are reconfiguring floor plans, staggering cubicle or shared workspace seating and adopting flexible, alternating schedules to maintain required social distancing amid beefed-up visitor screening and cleaning and sanitizing protocols.

And, to be sure, virtually every office employer is also taking a hard look at whether they really need all that expensive real estate if a good chunk of their employees end up working mostly from home after the pandemic wanes, posing a potential long-range hazard for what has been a booming South Florida office market.

"You've got to look at every aspect of your business," Argiz said. "Our rent bills are humongous. Outside of employee expense, it's got to be our second expense. Right now, I would say there is a 50-50 chance we're going to need less space."

What's most likely to happen, experts and executives say, is that the COVID-19 epidemic will sharply accelerate what had been tepid growth in telecommuting, pushing employers to adopt a flexible, blended approach for their workers, that is, some combination of working from home and in-office time.

"Working remotely in some fashion is here to stay," said Alfred Sanchez, president of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, adding that he's giving most of his 25 employees the choice of continuing to work remotely. "A lot of us are going to see this as a real plus."

When chamber employees do come back, Sanchez said, they will work in staggered intervals, so that if one worker gets the virus, it won't be transmitted to people on other teams. If that flexible approach works, he said, that could mean that businesses and organizations may be able to manage with much smaller offices or rely mostly on shared workspaces like We Work.

Though some have speculated that the pandemic experience may imperil the future of such shared spaces, Sanchez said it could ultimately prove a boon for them.

"Maybe they're hurting now, but I think it's going to leapfrog and accelerate," he said. "Down the line, people will realize, 'We don't need 10,000 square feet, we need 2,000. Or we need space every once in a while for a team to come in and get together, instead of a conference room that sits empty most of the day.' "

But in the middle of a pandemic of uncertain course that's forcing rapid changes on a weekly basis, there's no telling how extensive or how permanent those sorts of shifts might be, said Eddy Arriola, founder and CEO of Apollo Bank. As an essential business, the Brickell-based community bank kept some personnel at its branches even as it sent most of its administrators and lending officers home.

Arriola said he's bringing back people in slow, careful phases, while evaluating long-term space needs for its offices and bank branches. If social distancing becomes a long-term thing, he noted, that might call for more, not less space as the bank grows.

"We're still functioning the same way we were a month ago," Arriola said. "But forget about what we want to look like in May 2020. What will we look like in 2025?

"Anyone that I hear that thinks to have the answer is wrong. We're all figuring it out. There are so many little factors. Maybe you keep a space because rents come down. Do we need more space between employees? Do we need larger break rooms?"

Any long-term effects on Miami's office market won't play out for months, as leases come up for renewal. Right now, brokers and the Downtown Development Authority say, firms and companies continue looking for and leasing office space in Miami, though at a slower rate because of the pandemic. But New York firms looking to move out of Manhattan for tax and cost reasons have helped keep things moving.

Lease negotiations now often entail concessions from landlords as existing tenants reconfigure floor plans to allow greater social distancing, said Cushman & Wakefield vice president Brian Gale.

Some new leases include calculations for space needed per employee to accommodate the recommended six feet of social separation as well as rotating shifts, said Tere Blanca, chief executive officer of Miami's Blanca Commercial Real Estate.

But Elliot LaBreche, vice president of the Easton Group, said he has five office tenants looking to shrink between 15% to 25% of their footprint.

Some landlords are offering up to six rent-free months for long-term leases, though he said rent rates haven't budged.

Gale, whose firm is leasing 830 Brickell, a new 57-story tower designed by the same architects as Dubai's Burj Khalifa and due for completion in 2021, said he doesn't anticipate drastic changes.

"The office is not going away," he said. "Can you work from home? Yes. Is it as productive? No. Forget about the dog barking and kids in the background, you lose the camaraderie when you work from home."

Executives agree: There will likely always be a need for offices. The question is, how much?

Getting people together is essential to building trust and collegiality, training new employees, and fostering a company culture and work ethic, they say. For creative, collaborative jobs in particular, and even for keeping clients satisfied, they say, there is no substitute for human proximity, even though it doesn't mean employees have to be in the office every single day.

For lawyers, accountants and planners who help clients map out their future, deciding delicate matters like wills and finances, a secure Webex link can't replace the human touch, said Joseph Saka, CEO of Miami-based Berkowitz Pollack Brant Advisors, which has 380 employees in South Florida and New York.

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