Downtown Toronto has felt gutted in the past couple months, with stay-at-home orders hollowing out the city’s office towers during the coronavirus pandemic. Walking through the streets, there’s a nervous calm and deceptive peacefulness. The feeling is a reminder that things are not well.
What if it stays this way?
“This is now the largest work-from-home experiment that has ever taken place,” says Royal LePage commercial realtor Ryan Henry. “And some companies are finding it’s working better than they thought it would.”
Banks and tech companies have rolled out infrastructure to allow the bulk of employees to work at home, from internal software to video conferencing apps like Zoom. If physical distancing continues, will big employers consider leasing out or abandoning their pricey office spaces, typically their biggest expense after wages?
Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter and merchant service Square, is making his work-from-home policy permanent even after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. Google and Facebook will keep some employees work remotely until at least 2021.
“Office centricity is over,” declared Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke on Twitter. On May 21, he announced the Toronto tech company will keep offices closed until 2021 and prepare most employees to work from home permanently.
Canadian banks are also getting comfortable with work-from-home culture. BMO and TD Bank are entertaining blended or permanent remote options, rotating a small portion of staff into their office spaces if need be.
CIBC’s public affairs director Trish Tervit told NOW that staff health and client needs will guide future decisions.
“The experience over the last several weeks, including having over two-thirds of our team members successfully working from home, has allowed us to learn and test assumptions about where work can be performed,” Tervit wrote in an email. “That gives us an opportunity to revisit remote work arrangements into our future workplace design.”
If major employers decide to vacate office spaces when leases expire, what does that mean for the commercial real estate developers with all those cranes in the sky? If CIBC is entertaining remote work arrangements, how does that affect CIBC Square, the twin towers being built as replacement headquarters at Bay and Front by Ivanhoé Cambridge and Hines?
Commercial real estate agents and urban planners say it’s still too early to definitively say whether major employers will abandon downtown as the pandemic drags on. Big tech companies have started moving from the suburbs to the core to take advantage of young talent, while at the same time office towers are being converted into storage and execs are eyeing cushy work set-ups in cottage country.
One thing is certain: physical office spaces will need to be rethought and redesigned, affecting how and when we work in the…