NAREE2021: The post-COVID office and how to get employees back to work

Office owners and landlords are investing millions in “proptech” such as touchless doors and air filtration systems. Some have tripled their budget for janitorial services, often cleaning public spaces up to three times a day.

But getting employees to return to work full time will take more than brick and mortar investments, according to panel of experts at the National Association of Real Estate Editors 2021 Conference in Miami.


Lenny Beaudoin, CBRE Executive Managing Director and Global Lead, Workplace, Design, Occupancy said the post-COVID office quandary will be how to balance remote work with a return to the office.

“When we surveyed our top clients, large occupiers of office space, 87% believe their future is some sort of hybrid — either balancing work remote or work at some split basis of time in and out of the office,” he said. But what may seem counterintuitive, as many as 85% of that same cohort of large office users say they will require employees to return to the office several days per week.


Fear of contracting COVID is not what’s keeping employees from returning to work. If that were the case, they wouldn’t be going out to restaurants, concerts, ballgames and other large public events. The reluctance to break from the work from home culture is about convenience, cost of commuting and work-life balance, Beaudoin said.

Diana Farmer-Gonzalez, managing director for Gensler’s Miami office, said the workplace of the future will be a hybrid environment. “Noone’s going to come back to the office the same way they left,” she said. “And so every company is going through a change in management process, in operational process and trying to understand the employees’ needs in a way that’s not just the most innovative companies. It’s everything.”

The new hybrid office space relies on flexibility and social distancing. Employers are now faced with a generation of workers who have never worked in a traditional office setting. It raises alarming concerns about employee engagement and retention.

“The survey of our younger coworker, or younger cohort group, has been the most disenfranchised by working remote, although it’s been wonderful,” Farmer-Gonzalez said. “There’s a lack of mentorship, there’s a lack of a cohort group of learning peripherally about the culture, and also just learning platforms that happen when you’re in person or in the same space together — that you get to experience. So they do a different concept of what it is to work from home.”

Beaudoin said the youngest employees are the most difficult to retain, and to lure back to the office. “When you look at how companies are approaching this, they’re approaching this like a campaign because they’re having to retrain, re-energize, retool their workforce, to break this habit exclusively working from home and draw them back to the office.”

Responding to the hybrid workplace and COVID protocols forced employers to redesign the offices in ways that improve efficiency and encourage collaboration with less density and fewer enclosed offices.

“Some of the most interesting findings that we’re having around real estate isn’t the most innovative companies are actually asking for a quarter to a third more (square footage) because density is no longer king. Now it’s about where do I do my best work in all different kinds of settings,” Farmer-Gonzoles said.

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