“Gone are the days of crowding people into offices like sardines”: costs rise as workers return to more airy, cleaner offices


The cost of office maintenance fell dramatically during the pandemic as workers moved away and businesses saved money on services like cleaning and security, as well as perks like cleaning. dry and endless snacks from the pantry.

But as employees begin to return to the office, the cost of running the workplace increases.

By December, around 40% of workers had returned at least part-time, although the omicron variant of the coronavirus put the brakes on plans to return to the office. And developers still expect employees to be back on site for the long haul, even as hybrid work becomes more common. CP Group, which owns and manages 32 office buildings, mostly in the Southeast and Southwest, has bought $ 1.2 billion worth of office space since May, a bet staff will return.

More robust air filtration and newly installed outdoor spaces are among the things that will increase developer costs when more employees return. New cleaning practices can make these services more expensive.

“Operating expenses are down slightly in 2020,” said Kristin Mueller, COO of property management at JLL, a real estate services company that oversees more than 1,000 office buildings across the United States. . “For the 2022 real estate budgets, we anticipate modest overall increases. “

The cost of running the office today remains below pre-pandemic levels, but not as significantly as many managers expected, Mueller said.

Having fewer employees on-site means less daily cleaning and garbage collection, for example, but these reduced janitorial services are often countered by deep disinfection guidelines, as well as labor costs. higher work for maintenance. And spending on supplies like coffee filters, pens, and paper towels may be down, but these have been replaced by purchases like hand sanitizers and masks.

As the coronavirus is spread by air, one of the most significant changes in building operations has been the focus on air quality. Many companies are carefully examining their ventilation, which could involve installing more robust air filters to filter out virus particles, for example, or replacing the air in the building more frequently. Water and electricity consumption may be lower than normal, but even with fewer people in the building, the costs for heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems have likely increased.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists ways in which buildings can improve ventilation, such as by running HVAC systems for a maximum of two hours before and after occupancy of buildings.

Employers are paying more attention to air quality than ever before, said Nellie Brown, health and safety specialist at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“If you don’t spend the money to improve your ventilation, you could be spending it on sick people,” Brown said.

She added that these improvements could have helped reduce the spread of seasonal flu in years past if they had been in place.

Upgrading HVAC systems can be expensive and add monthly costs. New equipment for a typical 100,000-square-foot Chicago office building, for example, can cost up to $ 100,000 to install, Mueller said, and can add 5-10% to monthly bills. For offices located in milder climates, simply opening the windows can increase the air quality, although many office windows do not open.

Building managers are creating more rooftop and patio space for workers. Maintaining these spaces will incur additional costs, such as heating or cooling, but Angelo Bianco, managing partner of the CP Group, said his company was adding outdoor lounge space “to every building we own.” Some new designs focus on flexible indoor-outdoor spaces, like an airy lobby coffee shop with indoor seating and garage door-like walls that can be opened onto a patio.

Adding outdoor spaces was already a trend before the pandemic, but “now it’s a priority,” said Greg Smith, CEO of Urban Visions, a developer in Seattle. It has three projects scheduled to open in the next few years, and each offers significant outdoor locations.

“The era of crowding people into offices like sardines is over,” he said.

Some office building changes are more about peace of mind than actual effect, such as moving janitorial staff from night to daylight hours so that employees can see the building being cleaned.

“If the building doesn’t feel safe, they won’t go in,” Mueller said.

Updating employees on construction infrastructure is another practice inspired by the pandemic.

“Until 18 months ago, hardly anyone cared about ‘healthy buildings’,” Bianco said. “It has changed irrevocably. “

Now employees can wonder how often air filters are cleaned and how effective they are. Brown of Cornell offers training sessions for building managers to help them explain air filtration systems to their employees. Businesses need to rethink their maintenance costs with the future in mind.

“We cannot go back to the way we were,” she said.

Before the pandemic, developers were already offering services like dry cleaning, shoe repair, and grocery pickup. As employers now compete to recruit talent, Smith said, creating an environment with the right amenities is part of hiring and retention. These could be training facilities, showers, health centers, indoor and outdoor greenery, bicycle parking or lockers where packages can be delivered.

One of the biggest challenges of the pandemic has been child care, which many workers cited as a reason for working from home or quitting their jobs altogether. Acknowledging this struggle, Bianco said his properties are building more daycare centers on site to accommodate parents.

“The question is, ‘Why would employees want to come back and what amenities do I need to provide? “Smith said, adding that when speaking to interested tenants,” everything is on the table. “

There are some economical home work habits that accompany employees back to the office. At Turner & Townsend, a consulting firm with 750 employees, printing and copying costs are still only 15% of what they were, said James McDade, the company’s chief financial officer for North America. North. Workers have become accustomed to sharing documents on the screen rather than distributing copies.

“Spending on basic office supplies will never return to pre-pandemic levels,” he said, “because we just work differently now.”

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