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Virus providing a preview of how people will go to work

Global response to the coronavirus is contributing to the evolution of modern employment patterns that will change they way we work and live for ever, according to at least one expert.

With thousands of people asked to work from home as part of the effort to stem the spread of the disease, workplace strategist Melissa Marsh believes the result will be a giant leap in “virtual” technologies that enable companies to shift gear when tragedy or natural disaster strike.

MELISSA MARSH

“The outbreak of coronavirus presents a significant opportunity for organizations to see the benefit and value from flexible working,” said Marsh, senior managing director of Occupant Experience at Savills, founder and executive director of PLASTARC,

“Organizations should have remote working as a core skill set for employees so that they can do it whenever they need, in snow storms, hurricanes and the current kind of pandemic emergency we have today.

“If you are just trying to turn on a work from home program now, you’ll find it’s a heavy lift. It is significant to your IT department, HR and the people doing the work. It would be hard for an organization to be buying hundreds of laptops and deploying them now if they haven’t previously done it as part of a plan.”

“Remote working is a skill set that you need to train for so that you are prepared to do it for a week, a month, even longer, without causing huge disruption to your organization.”

While official figures are not yet available from the MTA, subway ridership is noticeably down and office buildings noticeably empty as jittery New Yorkers attempt to avoid coronavirus.

Officially, companies including Twitter, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Google have directed their employees to work from home where possible.

At office brokerage SquareFoot, only one quarter of the staff were in the office on Monday.

T.J. Illmensee, senior director at SquareFoot and one of those who went in, said, “Our platform is based on tours, on presenting spaces. You want to be able to give the client a visual presentation of what the space looks like. In real estate it’s one-on-one contact. The way New York City operates, you have to feel the space, see the space, see if it’s going to work with your headcount and for your company.”

Although Illmensee said he hasn’t had any meetings cancelled and has yet to switch to giving virtual tours, but, “Clients are delaying or slowing project searches.”

The normally busy real estate social scene has also taken a hit with a flurry of event cancellations this week, including Bob Knakal’s luncheon keynote for the YM/WREA and the Asian Real Estate Professional Associationʼs seminar with New Empire president, Bentley Zhao.

Sarah Berman, president of the Berman Group which organizes some 1,000 events per year, said most only a handful have been postponed.

SARAH BERMAN

“We are actively monitoring the situation and, in particular, regularly reviewing our upcoming events calendar for our clients. It is key for organizations and event attendees alike to be vigilant and safe, but it is also imperative that we not panic,” said Berman.

“Our view on events is that if venues are open, such as the museums, restaurants and offices where we typically host gatherings, we will likely continue to move forward with planned events, even if the turnout is somewhat reduced. It’s important that the city and our industry continue to maintain operations at this time while also remaining focused on health best practices.”

Indeed, Mayor Bill de Blasio reminded the cityʼs 8.6 million residents that, despite 36 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Tuesday, New York remains open for business.

BILL DE BLASIO

“At this time, New Yorkers do not need to limit travel within the city, change where they purchase food or how they prepare it, or avoid public gatherings and public transportation,” said the mayor in a public service announcement. “New Yorkers are reminded to stay home if they feel sick, and practice good hygiene.”

With the virus expected to peak before things get better, the real estate sector continues to be vigilant.

Hani J. Salama, chair and CEO of the Building Owners & Managers Association (BOMA-NY) SAID, “BOMA New York is working in close partnership to assess the ongoing situation with the New York City Office of Emergency Management and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, as well as with state and federal agencies.

HANI SALAMA

“It is very important to take common sense steps to reduce the exposure of this virus. Many building owners and managers have increased their cleaning services to frequently disinfect all public areas, above and beyond industry the norm. BOMA New York advises all landlords to ensure that their tenant and vendor contact lists are updated with an established means of communicating with tenants both onsite and offsite in the event there is a need to vacate the property.

“The commercial real estate sector stands ready to assist in any and all responses deemed necessary by our health and emergency management professionals.”

With some 16 million square feet of new office space under construction in New York City alone, workplace strategists like Marsh doubt the remote experience will dent demand.

She said the social aspects of work will always trump a desire to spread out on the couch with a project. “We saw in 2008 a real change in how space was occupied and where organizations were working to get rid of excess space and use technology differently,” said Marsh.

“Even though many started to grow in headcount, the didn’t grow their square footage. What is happening now is a continuation of what we have been seeing for a while, but we can see from trends such as co-working that people do seek out connections, they like the social benefits of being part of a working community.

“The current urgent exercise will push corporations to make sure they have options, ensure that remote working is a tangible skill set and also figure out how to create the kind of work life balance their employees desire. There may be some real estate compression as organizations find the right balance for them, but real estate isn’t over, it’s just going to continue on the trajectory we are already on.”

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