Remaking the Association Workplace
Refreshed Spaces

The Post-Pandemic Office Lease

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COVID-19 shuttered association offices for extended periods, and with many organizations continuing remote work at least part time, leaders are reconsidering their office space. Many want less square footage and more flexible lease terms—and they have more leverage to get them.

The pandemic has literally reshaped the office. As organizations embrace work-from-home or hybrid arrangements, it’s been harder for many to determine what kind of physical space they need, and how much of it.

An October 2021 survey by Achurch Consulting and Association Trends found that 79 percent of associations planned to go hybrid or fully remote. And while more associations have returned to the office since then, Mindy Saffer, managing principal at the commercial real estate firm Cresa, says she still sees nonprofits looking to reduce their office footprint substantially from pre-pandemic levels.

“The average trade association, pre-COVID, was occupying about 250 to 350 square feet per employee,” she said. “Now, with hybrid workplaces, it’s closer to 150. They still need the public spaces for meetings and collaboration, but if employees are coming in once or twice a week, they don’t need to provide a dedicated seat for every employee. They can share spaces and people will come when needed.”

“The average trade association, pre-COVID, was occupying about 250 to 350 square feet per employee. Now it’s closer to 150.” — Mindy Saffer, Cresa

The upside for associations looking for smaller spaces is that they have a lot of leverage in setting their terms.

“We are smack dab in the middle of a tenant-driven market, similar to how we’re in an employee-driven market—negotiations are really favorable for the tenant,” Saffer said. “We’re getting major concessions to cover costs associated with upgrading spaces and technology and a lot of flexibility in leases: contraction and expansion options, as well as termination rights.”

Workplaces in Flux

That flexibility is helpful, given that the workplace environment is still very much in flux. “Not a lot has been resolved except for the fact that not very many people are going to be working on a permanent remote basis,” said Peter Cappelli, a business professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of The Future of the Office.

That doesn’t mean associations should abandon their office floorplans and workspace designs without careful thought. Cappelli notes that “hot desk” and “hoteling” arrangements don’t always get high marks from employees, and some employers that have tried these alternatives have found that workers missed having their own space and sitting near their team members.

Dictatorial mandates about returning to the office tend to set off employees as well. Earlier this year, for instance, Apple’s plan to bring employees back three days a week led to vocal pushback. In one survey, a majority of workers said they would leave the company if the policy were implemented. (Apple later walked back its return-to-office plan.) Cappelli says that those are most likely idle threats, but the complaints speak to how seriously organizations need to consider their office arrangements, balancing worker and organizational needs.

“Most everyone would like to have a choice as to when and how they work, but the problem is that this doesn’t work well for employers,” he said. “Scheduling and coordination is more difficult the more people can choose where and when they are in the office.”

Policy First

While current conditions are favorable for office-shopping and lease negotiations, any discussion of new office space before workplace policy issues are settled is putting the cart before the horse, Saffer cautions.

“Associations need to figure out what their remote-work policy is going to be,” she said. “Are they going to allow employees to work from home and never come to the office? Come in once, twice, three times a week? Once all that is evaluated, the leadership must make difficult decisions.”

And even then, monitoring the success of the office arrangement will be a work in progress, she adds. “Ten years from now, we may find that workers are not as productive [working at home], or maybe the association members want them back at the office because [staff is] not accessible to them. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I just know that right now, people are incorporating hybrid work model and they’re happy with that.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.

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