Continuing the Conversation: COVID-19’s Impact to Global Occupiers

by | 15 April 2020

Colliers’ Occupier Services hosted a global webinar for more than 2,000 attendees and we received more than 200 questions from pre-registration, as well as our live Q&A. Our leadership team has reviewed and organized responses to these questions into five major categories.

Rent-relief | transaction strategy

In summary, each client’s situation is unique. For this instance, we will refer to “rent-relief” as getting a reduction from the landlord while offering nothing in return. We will refer to “lease restructuring” and “lease re-gears” to include transactions which are structured more as a win-win between the parties (e.g. extending the lease commitment well in advance of the lease expiration, in exchange for upfront rent or other concessions).

As covered in the webinar, there are a material percent of cases where rent relief is being evaluated currently, and a small percent where rent relief is being actively pursued. There are so many factors at play here, most importantly the relationship and partnership between landlord and tenant in these unprecedented times. Many occupier clients have hundreds, if not thousands, of leases across their portfolio and it is rare that a blanket strategy should be applied to every lease. In cases where rent relief is being pursued, this is generally when clients are in a more dire situation compared to most even today, and generally being applied more to small businesses, but of course there are exceptions unique to each client. In working with virtually every client on their strategy, in many cases across a large and diverse portfolio, there could be some opportunities for lease restructuring where the client can realize savings and other concessions while the landlords also benefit. A key component of this strategy is analytics on certainty and uncertainty of space demand, as well as real estate market timing implications. Ultimately, as mentioned in the webinar, the golden rule of real estate for occupiers applies: “Never allow real estate strategy to drive the business plan”.

Colliers’ Occupier Services has published multiple articles on this topic, including “COVID-19 Considerations for Occupiers” and “CRE Market Outlook and Down-Market Strategies for Occupiers During COVID-19”, which provide real estate strategy and transaction advisory recommendations, as the business climate continues to evolve.

In many cases, both occupiers and landlords are delaying many transactions given so much uncertainty, if they have the luxury.

war for talent

In our webinar, we suggested that the corporate (occupier) real estate industry has had a major focus on the ability for the real estate and workplace strategy to contribute to the attraction and retention of talent. Especially in the past few years, this “war for talent” has created significant challenges for companies, with many materially increasing their investment in the workplace to attract and retain talent. We are now proposing that given unemployment levels are skyrocketing, this war for talent, at least in the traditional sense, may be over. This may cause companies to reevaluate the workplace strategy and the investment allocation in the workplace, potentially offsetting the investment in perks that are provided at no-cost to the employee, with investments in a much higher standard of cleanliness and de-densification of offices. So, do companies trade-off top quality food, children’s day care, transportation, concierge services, gyms, complimentary yoga classes and gaming spaces? With potentially more available talent to choose from, lower corporate earnings and more people choosing to work from home, the amount of investment in the workplace might need to be adjusted by some companies.

gig economy

As many know, the gig workforce has been growing rapidly. We see several forces coming together to potentially accelerate this growth. These forces are:

  • The massive increase in unemployment
  • The increased comfort level and new attraction by the workforce to work-from-home
  • The validation from companies that they can get good results from talent who are working from home and not showing up in the office every day
  • The attraction of the variable cost nature of the gig workforce to companies, especially in an environment with even more pressure on corporate earnings

There are of course contradicting forces as well, namely, in a severe economic recession there could be a significant attraction of the workforce to stable full-time employment; however, we don’t currently see this outweighing the four opposing forces mentioned above.

technology and innovation

If technologies, such as online collaboration tools, e-commerce and digital media were not commonplace in your household, they are now. Video calling technologies such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WebEx have made it easy to collaborate from any room in your house. All generations have adapted well to their use and this will fuel conversations about how work can and should get done in the future. This technology will challenge the need to meet in-person and travel long distances for many meetings. For the real estate industry, traditionally slower to digitize and also being grounded in personal relationships and face-to-face interactions, virtual/video tours of properties and other tools, such as space visualization, could finally make their debut. We have already seen a significant increase in our use of these tools just in one month.

Growth of artificial intelligence and robotics could also accelerate, given the impact of the pandemic on labor pools. This could impact real estate footprints of occupiers, possibly needing less space for some functions, more/different space for others and also causing further opportunity to re-evaluate location strategies —offshoring versus onshoring, etc.

Specific to the supply chain and distribution network in the U.S., we will see major shifts here as well. It’s hard to believe that only about 10% of consumer purchases were through e-commerce prior to COVID-19. China, by comparison, tallies at more than 40%. With e-commerce exploding in the U.S. in the past month, this will dramatically challenge the balancing of warehouse — especially last-mile —and retail real estate needs.

portfolio strategy

The next evolution of portfolio strategy could look quite different from what we have been used to. Beyond the obvious of significantly enhanced focus on resiliency and risk, we see some companies will choose to materially change the makeup of their real estate footprint, including the numbers and sizes of locations, the geographic makeup, urban versus suburban, remote working expectations, the structure of transactions and lease and own decisions, and flexible workspace solutions. Keys to more robust portfolio strategy should include:

  • Real-time data for forecasting – Ensure you have better access to financial, HR, operations and real estate data. Now, it is critical to be able to know at a detailed level, today’s baseline and to forecast the impact to operating and capital expenses, as well occupancy based on the future changes in the business.
  • Scenario planning not simply point estimates – Once you establish a baseline, you should develop a series of “what if” analysis that translates disruption to your business for your portfolio/locations. This will allow you to build many and more valuable contingency plans if and when another event occurs.
  • Flexibility being core to the strategy – Your strategy should include flexible solutions, including rethinking lease and purchase transaction strategies and market conditions, the role remote work and flexible workspace solutions (coworking, etc.) will play during an event. The amount of control you have over the real estate, and susceptibility to uncontrollable forces, should be evaluated.
  • Ongoing and iterative plans – Ensure that you dedicate a percentage of your team’s time and/or investment to evergreen plans.
  • Integrated workplace and change management – Develop a plan for managing organizational and workplace change. Questions focused on ensuring you have the right people in the right places will be top-of-mind. Where will the work be occurring? Does the work require more individual contribution or collaboration?
  • Proactively partner within the business – Draw in your business partners and internal customers. Gain input on what they are seeing and use the information to impact proposed plans. Be proactive and share the process and outcomes. Together, you can co-create plans that are more meaningful and reshape the direction of your real estate portfolio.

Would Amazon perform the same search for HQ2 today, as it did 18 months ago? This is the type of immediate question COVID-19 has presented businesses — how and where to source and locate talent as we evolve from the crisis. Traditionally, we focused on concentrated labor in offices to scale and support talent. Analysis will more heavily consider concentration risk, balancing where talent exists today, where it might be in the future, and how critical is the need to be together. This could afford opportunities to expand geographic reach to source talent without having to rely on the large centers of excellence and infrastructure. A more distributed and dispersed model also provides a hedge against the next COVID-19 outbreak due to the inherent agility this type of model provides.

Click here to download our full whitepaper on this topic.

Please feel free to “continue the conversation” on the Colliers’ LinkedIn page. To access the recording of the webinar, or request a copy of the slide deck, please click here.

For more information, please visit our Colliers’ Occupier Services page on our website.