How Will the Coronavirus Change the Future of Commercial Real Estate

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John Macomber (Photo: Linkedin)

BOSTON—When the Working Knowledge publication of the Harvard Business School recently asked HBS experts how the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to change business practice, we noticed two responses that directly dealt with commercial real estate and thought they will be useful to our readers.

Here are unedited responses from the two Harvard Business School experts as published in the Working Knowledge:

Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury: Remote work will become strategic

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I’ve been studying remote work for years now, but under very different conditions—not under a crisis like this. We have to recalibrate our minds in terms of why we’re doing remote work now.

In this moment of panic, when companies and workers are trying to figure out how to be productive and how to be happy working from home, the most practical advice I can give is to find someone who is experienced in remote work tech tools. Find a colleague who has used Slack and Zoom and set up a tutorial and get a sense of how to use these tools and what their functionality is like. Hopefully the virus will go away soon, but those tools will stay helpful even if you choose to go back to the office when the virus is gone. This is an opportunity to learn Slack and Zoom and have a mentor teach you how to use these tools.

The second thing is, working remotely is very effective if you can also restructure the organizational processes for how communication happens, how socialization happens, and how coordination happens.

In a short time it’s not possible to do everything, so there are a few things companies can focus on. First, in a remote world, it’s very important to not only communicate synchronously on Skype or Zoom, but asynchronously, where you’re not face to face on a screen.

The easiest way is to use a Google doc or Slack. This is how virtual companies work. If you and I are working as a team, I can work in a Google doc and explain what I’ve done, and you can wake up in a different time zone or city, open it up, and see the work I’ve done. There’s less chance of losing communication, and people are on the same page.

The final thing I’ll say: Remote companies have well-established processes where people are socializing and no one is feeling isolated and falling through the cracks. That’s really important right now, especially with all the anxiety around us and schools getting closed and the fear and psychosis of the moment.

In my research, productivity went up when people went to remote work settings. But I would not like to compare those normal circumstances to this moment now, where general anxiety might affect productivity.

The isolation and mental sadness needs to be actively worked on by encouraging employees to develop a personal regime: Exercise at home, meditate, and make sure you reach out and talk to people, even if that socialization takes place virtually, just to make sure employees are happy, mentally relaxed, and productive to the extent that we can.

And managers should think: How do we survive this time and even get something positive out of this? One of those positives could be the use of all these cool tools that we should be using anyway. As time passes, workers may find that they like the flexibility of not driving every day and might be interested in making their own self-selection to continuously work from home. So companies should have the right processes and incentives in place to allow for that flexibility.

Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury (@prithwic) is the Lumry Family Associate Professor in the Technology and Operations Management Unit.

John Macomber: Employees and buildings will be healthier

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COVID-19 will change the nature of our offices, apartments, hospitals, schools, and government buildings. Concern about the spread of this and other communicable diseases might fade after this contagion, but there will probably be more outbreaks in the decades to come. This means that we can expect our physical structures to change, too.

Think of the extension of today’s airport and courthouse security screening: not just what weapons you may be carrying, but also what infections you may be carrying. Many of us have experienced health screening in Asian airports for years as technicians viewed our facial temperatures, checked our passports and vaccination histories, and asked questions. This will become a more permanent component of entry to office buildings, schools, and transit hubs.

Physical components of buildings and public spaces will change, too—in subtle ways. We are the indoor generation; we spend 90 percent of our time inside. (This means that by the time you are 60 years old, you will have spent 54 years indoors). Organizations will realize that indoor air quality—notably involving fresh air and filtration—directly impacts productivity of healthy people and helps mitigate the onset of sick people.

As Dr. Joseph Allen of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and I argue in our forthcoming book, Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, more money will be spent and should be spent on fans, filters, ductwork, chillers, heat exchangers, and dehumidifiers—and on the energy to run them.

The next wave of intervention will be in the collection of population information regarding who enters the building and when. With facial recognition and infrared cameras, there can be time series data collected from your temperature and probably what was in the breaths you exhaled, captured over weeks and years, as you enter vestibules and ride elevators.Further, apartment dwellers, office workers, and hospital patients alike will be able to track and share air quality analytics in a very democratized way from their handheld sensors connected to their mobile phones and organized and served up by third-party rating databases like the future Morningstars, Yelps, Glassdoors, TripAdvisors, and others.

Building owners (and their investors and lenders) in all sectors will have to both outfit their buildings to measure components of public health and also respond to their occupants doing their own assessments. This might be disconcerting, and the rollout will be uneven, but we all will be collectively safer.

John Macomber (@cleantechcities) is a senior lecturer of business administration in the Finance Unit

To read the entire article from the Working Knowledge, please click here.