Coworking and commercial real estate landlords in urban markets have an elevator problem, industry experts say.
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, few workers want to be crammed in elevators heading to the top floors with strangers and few employers want to expose them to such risk, the experts told Business Insider.
Such concerns could give added impetus to allowing employees even after the pandemic passes to work from home or work from satellite offices in the suburbs, they said.
The elevator worries could fade if the epidemic passes soon or could be accommodated by scheduling systems, they said.
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Many commercials real estate companies — traditional landlords and coworking providers alike — have an elevator problem, industry experts say.
No, the lifts aren't stuck between floors or forcing workers to wait interminable moments to get a ride to their floor. Instead, the problem has to do with the danger of crowding into elevators with strangers for long rides to the upper floors of high rises during a pandemic, the experts told Business Insider.
And the problem could help spur some significant changes in the industry, they said. "People don't want to deal with elevators and tall buildings if they don't have to," said Tom Smith, a cofounder of Truss, an online office space marketplace.
Employees aren't eager to pack into elevators while the coronavirus epidemic still rages, Smith and other experts said. And corporate tenants aren't eager to expose their employees to such situations.
Some buildings have started to institute scheduling systems to spread elevator usage out over time, said Julie Whelan, head of occupier research for the Americas for real estate giant CBRE. But other buildings aren't well-equipped to do that, she said.
"Elevators are absolutely a sticking point right now," Whelan said.
The suburbs are looking more attractive
Even before the COVID crisis, there was already growing demand for flexible office space outside of central business districts and closer to the less urban or even suburban places where many office workers live, Whelan and others said. Such offices are often in lower-rise buildings or on the lower floors of mid-rise towers, they said.
The pandemic forced many corporations to allow their employees to work from home or other locations far from their primary offices. The general success of remote work during the crisis is likely to spur many companies to support employees working from home or from offices near their homes after the epidemic passes, the experts said.
The elevator issue makes suburban office space even more attractive and is likely to add to pressure on employers to look for such accommodations, the experts said. Employees can access such offices by taking the stairs or just walking into them without having to go to a higher floor at all. They don't have to worry about cramming into an elevator or waiting for their appointed time to ride one.
Being forced to wait for an elevator in a high-rise to "is going to frustrate people, because that adds to the commute time to your physical space," said Charlie Morris, leader of the US flexible office solutions practice at commercial real estate brokerage Avison Young. "Those people will most likely say, 'I'd rather just work from home or work from near home versus going and doing that.'"
Unfortunately for many of the top coworking providers such as WeWork, their office spaces are primarily located in dense urban areas, not out in the suburbs. Such companies have already seen a sharp drop in occupancy at their mostly downtown towers, thanks to the pandemic.
Memories are short
To be sure, it's not certain that the elevator issue will have such long-lasting effects. Josh Freed, CEO of Proximity, a company that offers software and services that help coworking providers manage their spaces, is optimistic that scheduling systems for elevators will address the problem. People will just need to adjust their behavior and expectations, he said.
"The elevator question is ... just going to end up being a solvable problem," Freed said.
Others make historical comparisons. In the immediate wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, few people wanted to work in the top floors of skyscrapers. But office workers eventually returned to such spaces.
If the US starts to get the pandemic under control soon or a vaccine is developed in the near-term, the concerns about elevators could likewise soon fade.
People's memories are short," Whelan said. "And I think it really depends on how long we're stuck in this challenging time."
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