Will COVID-19 kill the concept of the office in Edmonton?

“It’s human nature to be in communion with one another”

Right now, the office landscape has a ’60s western feel about it. COVID-19 comes sauntering up Main Street – black hat, hip-slung six-shooter – and people scatter to the safety of their homes. Everyone peers out from the curtains, waiting to see what happens next.

Some people are tiring of the colour of those curtains, and of seeing neighbours only through windows – or colleagues via video conferencing. And some are fine with it.

What will happen with all those people, once COVID-19 finally does leave town? It could be quiet in the U.S., where two-thirds of large companies may downsize and a number of major tech firms are letting employees choose where to work. “Bustling skyscrapers and office parks packed with workers could be a relic of the pre-pandemic world,” predicted a CNN writer.

But does that align with basic human nature? Modern psychology rules out a sharp divide between introverts and extroverts, suggesting instead that most people are something in between. That is, almost everyone benefits from at least some human interaction, and therefore from trips to the office.

That may be the case in Edmonton. We asked three grads and real estate experts to pull back the curtain on how we’ll take back the office and what it will mean to share space again, post-pandemic.

office cubes seen through glass windows

Goodbye, cube farm

Once, the trend was to tear down the office walls and let the ideas flow freely from person to person. But, in close quarters, that’s what viruses do.

“I would suggest that trend will end very quickly,” says Chad Snow (Marketing ’96), president, broker and director at NAI Commercial in Edmonton. “People will probably want to have their own area and not shared workspaces. This means spaces must be redeveloped.”

“Bullpen areas have to change to facilitate the need for six feet apart.”

It may also mean expanding physical footprints, which could eat up commercial vacancy rates of 17.6% in Edmonton and 25.7% in Calgary – the highest in Canada.

As companies look at the likelihood of future pandemics, “Are they looking at bigger footprints because they need more enclosed offices?” asks Chuck Clubine (Finance ’93), senior associate at the Edmonton offices of Lizotte and Associates Real Estate. Also, “Their bullpen areas have to change to facilitate the need for six feet apart.”

office coworking space

Get ready to meet the neighbours

Spreading out might even involve multiple buildings for some companies. “Who are they going to look to?” asks Jennifer Kennedy (Finance ’92), associate broker at Edmonton’s Local Real Estate. “Sublets.”

As companies expand or contract following the pandemic, she says, they may seek to secure offices from another firm or rent out empty stalls of their own.

The result could be an intermingling of interests, skill sets and perspectives. Clubine sees this as good for economic development. “Then you’re in an area where you have all these synergistic businesses that can meet in the kitchen and the common areas and the lobbies.”

“I suspect we’ll see a lot of businesses open in 2022.”

Such space may prove more desirable than ever. Though improving, Alberta’s unemployment rate was 10.7% in January.

“Albertans by nature are entrepreneurs,” says Snow. “If there aren't jobs, they’ll start businesses because interest rates are low and they’re not going to sit idle. I suspect we’ll see a lot of businesses open in 2022.”

Sublets, which tend to be more reasonably priced, may be their launch pads.

Don’t discount the human condition

“The cave is only so comfortable for a while, and then the walls start to get to you,” says Kennedy. “It’s human nature to be in communion with one another.”

Studies show that employees are productive at home, but Clubine feels that his clients expect to benefit from in-person interaction between employees in the office.

“The technology is amazing, but you’re not connected like you are in real life.”

Like Kennedy, he recognizes that we’re social animals meant to spend most of our time outside of the burrow, whether it has Wi-Fi or not.

“It also instills creativity,” he says. “I don’t know how many Zoom calls you’ve been on – I’ve been on way too many. The technology is amazing, but you’re not connected like you are in real life.”

Snow agrees: “When we get through this and people feel safe, they might not want to share desks,” he says, but they’ll want their desks to be near enough. “People do like being in close proximity to other people.”

Pandemic proofing the office

Much to the excitement of Kennedy, who grew up in a household where cleanliness was a virtue, personal space could improve in quality as well as quantity.

“Everything is going to be so much cleaner!” she says. “I really welcome that. That’s a trend that’s going to be for years to come, and that will be a good thing.”

Sanitation stations will be ubiquitous. Hopefully, so too will be better ventilation systems, Kennedy adds, since recirculated air is never going to be as clean as what’s drawn from outside.

meeting room with COVID masks

Wait for it ...

Like COVID-19 itself, nothing will change overnight. Office space leases will need to run their course, then tenants will need to decide to act. The commercial real estate market is like “a big ship at sea,” says Snow. It takes time to turn around.

Nonetheless, the office of the future – probably roomier and featuring new faces – looms on the brighter horizon of a vaccinated population. Every day we approach it, says Clubine, confidence grows.

“Once there’s optimism, people are going to be proactive.”

Whether that means moves, expansions or redesigns, it will mean new ways of interacting with officemates. It may also mean being able to close an office door on them, too.

Banner image: Orbon Alija/iStockphoto.com

The post-COVID commercial real estate market

The Alberta commercial real estate market has seen better days, though they were a while ago. Double-digit vacancies plagued the downturn that preceded the pandemic as well, when low oil prices contributed to a cascade of office-tower exits. Now, says Clubine, “I believe there’s pent-up demand.”

If oil won’t boom, other sectors might, he feels, be it anything from coal to technology. “There’s a lot of opportunity in Edmonton. It’s a great place to do business, an affordable place, and known as a great place to raise a family.”

Downsizing, too, could ultimately lead to an upswing. Kennedy warns that things will get worse before better but, should companies reorganize in cheaper sublets, “that’s where the cyclical thing is starting to churn,” she says.

“When they downsize they’ll be more efficient, their profits will increase and they’ll expand. And the whole thing happens again.”


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