Don’t vacate your office space yet!
How many of us have now heard or read ominous reports of the demise of commercial office space as we know it; that landlords are in dire straits and best unload their properties before it’s too late; that managers best learn to manage distributed work teams forever; that workers are going to settle into their farms or barns and communicate all day long on Zoom or TEAMS. For many 30 and 40 something year old parents with 2 kids, the thought of not having the refuge of their office a few days a week would be unbearable.
Well, if you are an employer, no need to worry about employees not returning to work. If you’re a landlord, losing tenants or tenants downsizing is a temporary, albeit costly, inconvenience. Simply put, all this hype about the “new normal” will be a thing of the past in 12-18 months’ time post mass vaccinations. One of the authors lived in New York City and worked at the World Financial Center during 9/11. Despite this horrific event, and in spite of New Yorkers behaving politely for 6 months post the event, people did not abandon skyscrapers, let alone the 60-storey office buildings (which in NYC does not qualify for skyscraper status). In fact, the towers which have since replaced the Twin Towers were fully leased in very short order.
Human beings have a need to work together. Unless one is an extreme introvert, the vast majority of people prefer to spend at least some time together. Working in isolation is tantamount to sensory deprivation. The psychological literature is replete with data regarding the downside of isolation and sensory deprivation (SD). SD is known to result in anxiety, bizarre thoughts, depression, and at the extreme, if these aren’t extreme enough, hallucinations. When you compound these symptoms with being exposed to countless interruptions at home be it from people, TV, delivery people from Amazon, young children hollering for attention, access to endless amounts of food….it actually seems that someone working from home will vacillate between sensory deprivation and sensory overload. The symptoms of sensory overload consist of extreme irritability, restlessness, urge to cover ones ears and eyes, insomnia, outbursts of hostility and generalized discomfort. If there is indeed validity to the research, those who decide to work from home for an extended period are in for quite the ride.
For the time being, regulations have compelled us to “work from anywhere but the office”. Once these restrictions are lifted, watch out for the stampede to the office…if they are still available to us.
Looked at from a different perspective, telework has been around for 30 years now. Even with the advent of the fax machine, cell phone, laptop computers and other devices and services in the 70’s and 80’s, people haven’t stormed out of their offices. Yes, working from anywhere is not a new phenomenon; people have been able to work from anywhere for decades. Yet, commercial office space has experienced, in most places, a significant boom during this very period of time. Some of the wealthiest among us are the landlords that own these properties. Yes, the pandemic has added a significant layer to the mix…fear of infection and fear of dying….both serious motivators of behavior. But, as we control the spread, as landlords implement safety precautions and as time simply passes, the natural inclination of the majority of people will be to head back to the office….at least a good part of the time. Indeed, in a January, 2021 Financial Post interview, Jonathan Flatt, CEO of Brookfield Asset Management and other Brookfield entities, one of the largest commercial landlords in North America, argued for the importance of water-cooler conversations and their role in building a strong culture. “In business and life there are always problems and having a personal connection with others helps you work through those situations. That’s why office spaces are important,” said Flatt. Following the publication of Brookfield’s strategy to acquire commercial property which others were abandoning, their stock price rose by 17.5%.
“In business and life there are always problems and having a personal connection with others helps you work through those situations. That’s why office spaces are important,” said Flat.
Following the publication of Brookfield’s strategy to acquire commercial property which others were abandoning, their stock price rose by 17.5%.
Now, there is a significant segment of the population who would return to the workplace today if it weren’t for fear. Certainly there are enough disinfectant wipes, masks, plexiglass partitions, and the like to create an atmosphere of safety. Yet, fear is not rational. One of the authors is a Psychologist who back in the early 70’s developed the first group fear of flying programs. Indeed, the statistics then were that 30% of the flying public flew with some degree of fear and approximately 10% of that 30% wouldn’t fly at all. Yet, the statistics then were that the likelihood of sustaining an injury was greater while traveling on an elevator than in an aircraft.
Phobias, by definition, are irrational fears. Therefore, when someone is vaccinated to the tune of 95% immunity, wears a mask, washes their hands regularly, works behind a plexiglass barrier and keeps their distance from others, and is still fearful of working amongst others, this would constitute a phobia. Once a phobia has been developed, even if the stimulus for the fear is removed, the phobia may well have developed a life of its own and, in the case of coronavirus, will be sustained even after the pandemic is long over.
People not only have a desire to work with others; they actually have a need to work with others. Companies cannot function at their optimum with people spread over hell’s half acre. Study upon study speaks to the benefits of teamwork whether it’s to be more efficient in decision-making, increase productivity, enhance innovation and creativity, complete challenging tasks and complete projects faster and more efficiently.
Our team at GPA has developed a solution to Covid based anxiety consisting of a self-assessment tool and self-paced Covid anxiety relief training program. Euphemistically, we are referring to the program as the Covid Stress-Inoculation Training Program. The assessment allows employees to determine their level of COVID-related anxiety and based on the intensity of that anxiousness the employee is then directed to an on-line self-help training program to manage anxiety or, in extreme cases, can be guided to professionals who have expertise in eliminating or lessening the intensity and duration of the anxiety.
Who benefits from the program? First and foremost, the individual employee. By virtue of mastering COVID driven anxiety the employee will now have a choice to work from anywhere, or return full or part-time to their place of work. The employer derives benefit by virtue of having access to their employees, who in turn have in-person access to one another. Finally, landlords ought to be in a better position to retain tenants which ought to result in such community benefits as business districts not imploding, shops closing and even greater degrees of unemployment in the community. The benefits are by no means trivial.
Our team is embarking on several projects to put the COVID Stress-Inoculation Program into practice. One of our team is a former cancer surgeon and hospital CEO. His input has been on the precision medicine tailored to the individual approach to assess and triage individuals with COVID anxiety into appropriate programs to support employees into the transition to congregant work. We will be collecting data on aggregate changes in employee data to assist employers and landlords with supporting their tenants/employees. Finally longitudinal data collected will provide valuable tools to HR Directors at not only enhancing employee engagement but heading off increased stress, anxiety and mental health problems that currently dominate many long term disability plans.
The truth is that people will return to the workplace. Contact us to learn more about the program we have developed to allow for a safe return to congregant work that benefits all parties: employee, employer, landlord and the communities in which we live and work.