We are living through a pivot-point in the United States’ real estate history. The remote work revolution, which began as a temporary solution to the global pandemic and has since become a new way of professional life, has redefined how people approach their work and home environments.
According to a recent report from PwC, a full third of surveyed office workers say that they would prefer to never go into the office. This trend is even more pronounced among tech workers, as 95 percent say they plan to permanently work from home if their employer allows them to do so. Six out of ten tech employees say that they would even take a pay cut to do so. Approximately 23 million Americans are already planning to use their newfound flexibility to relocate to a new city or region.
For many tech workers, including 25-year-old Redfin product manager Nick Smith, remote policies allow employees the flexibility of moving wherever they want without risking career suicide.
“I don’t want my options to ever be limited,” Smith, who recently moved his family from a busy Seattle neighborhood to a suburban community, told Bloomberg. “And I don’t think they will be.”
As we move forward into the post-Covid era, real estate developers and managers will need to reimagine rented assets to suit the needs of a burgeoning class of remote workers. At present, countless remote employees have cobbled together office spaces from whatever materials they have at hand, often with less-than-stellar results. As VICE journalist Hannah Smothers recently described, “I’m in an ergonomic hell of our own making, completely unequipped to interior-design my way out of this problem.”
In the future, the burden shouldn’t fall solely on tenants like Smothers — instead, multifamily developers and asset owners should consider what they can do to attract this new — and likely significant — cohort of renters. People aren’t just looking for spaces that they can “interior design,” as Smothers puts it; they want homes that anticipate and preemptively meet their living and working preferences.
This adaptive process will require experimentation and fine-tuning over time. However, there are a few areas that those in multifamily real estate should prioritize during their initial considerations.
Rethink the Home Office
Today, a home office is more important than it has been for decades. Pre-pandemic, if a tenant worked remotely some or all of the time, they may have plopped down on their couch or headed to their favorite coffee shop for a few hours. But after months of remote work, it has become clear that neither of these approaches is entirely viable.
According to a recent survey from Hinge Health, a full 45 percent of participants have reported experiencing back or joint pain — likely, the researchers write, due to their reliance on informal and non-ergonomic seating (i.e., couches, bar stools, etc.) Coffee shops are similarly nixed as a full-time solution; even with vaccines on the horizon, it seems doubtful that workers will be able to reliably find indoor seating, much less remain there for hours.
Thus, the home office is a necessity. But what should it look like?
“Back in the day you’d have the mahogany-paneled library, but we’re not living in a formal world now,” real estate consultant Robin Kencel explained in an article on the matter. “Now, people are looking for more of a textured, comfortable feeling — natural light, doors to a private terrace, and great wall and floor finishes.”
Of course, not every apartment building can offer a private terrace. However, features such as natural light, soothing walls, and a closing door are relatively easy to manage regardless of price bracket.
That said, a modern interpretation of a “home” office need not be limited to a tenant’s apartment. Owners of larger multifamily assets may also opt to build shared office spaces within the building to create a more social workplace. These might include amenities such as open desks, computer bars, and conference rooms — although it is worth noting that shared office space will need to be managed with social distancing best practices in mind to put tenants at ease during the pandemic.
Build Homework Spaces
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic made at-home schooling a necessity for tens of millions of families, parental interest in go-to “work” spaces for their children was on the rise.
“Dedicated homework areas are very, very popular,” NYC-based real estate executive Alison Berstein told reporters for the New York Times in 2019.
This trend makes sense when you consider it — after all, a child who does their homework in their living room or bedroom faces countless distractions, and those who work in their apartment’s office might be a distraction for a still-working parent. Having a dedicated homework space, even if only a small nook, gives a child the environment they need to concentrate on their assignments during their parents’ workday.
Lighten Pet Policies
The remote-work revolution has coincided with — or perhaps caused — a pet ownership boom. Faced with months of isolation from friends, family members, and coworkers, remote workers have opted for animal companionship. Some shelters in New York City have received applications at ten times the usual rate.
To borrow a recent recap from Wired, “While pets cannot completely fill the void left by isolation from other humans, they do provide emotional support, fulfill the human need for touch, and offer significant relief to their caretaker’s stress and anxiety levels.”
Given the current interest in pet ownership, relaxing restrictions make sense. Renters will be more likely to sign or extend a lease if they know that their animal companions will be welcome in the building.
The above steps offer a starting point for thoughtful property owners; however, this list is by no means comprehensive. Those of us in the real estate industry will need to pay close attention to our tenants’ evolving needs during these unprecedented times. Change is at our thresholds; we might as well make sure our interiors are welcoming.