Real estate group opens the door for return to the office

Few companies are more motivated to promote the return to the office than those in real estate, whose portfolios of office property could be in serious trouble if the pandemic entrenches working from home.

Brookfield, the Canadian-owned investment group, says that three-quarters of employees at Brookfield Place, its US headquarters at the foot of Manhattan, have been back in the office since late November — and it has a playbook that it says other businesses can follow.

Regular Covid-19 testing is central to the effort, it says, along with more cleaning, and dealing with staff concerns over the use of public transport.

“It was important to demonstrate to our tenants that it was possible to bring people to the office,” said Brian Kingston, chief executive of Brookfield’s real estate group. “It is possible to do this and do it safely.”

That soothing message has yet to register with other New York businesses. Weekly surveys of commercial property occupancy show at best a tenth of offices are being staffed, according to the Real Estate Board of New York, a trade association.

Expectations are that by the middle of the year, occupancy rates will approach 50 per cent, helped by the rollout of vaccines.

Line chart of Weekly survey shows at best a tenth of offices being staffed showing Office workers remain at home in New York City

But in surveys of leading Manhattan employers last year, the Partnership for New York City noted that “the real estate industry has been the most aggressive in bringing employees back to the office”.

Many tenants in Brookfield-owned buildings are ready to start making preparations now that vaccines are being distributed, Kingston said. To aid them, he said, “we have created a white paper which is a starting point for how they can think about bringing their employees back to the office”.

Brookfield partnered with Carbon Health, a healthcare provider, to open a testing facility in Brookfield Place last summer. It runs 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and provides Covid tests for workers, conducted every two weeks and paid for by Brookfield.

Every day workers log into the Carbon Health app and provide a self-assessment. In situations where they feel unwell, they are told not to come to the office and a doctor will call them for an online diagnosis. 

Temperature screening devices guard the way to the lifts in Brookfield Place © Pascal Perich/FT
Staff started returning to Brookfield Place in June, since when there have been 42 positive cases among 750 employees © Pascal Perich/FT

The app is linked to each employee’s badge and when they swipe to enter Brookfield Place, anyone who has not completed their self assessment is flagged by the system. Temperature screening devices guard the way to the lifts.

Staff started returning to Brookfield Place in late June, since when there have been 42 positive cases among 750 employees. In cases of positive tests in the office, nearby workers have been isolated, sent home and then tested later. “There have been no instances of community spread,” said Kingston.

Brookfield has inked another partnership, with a ride share app called Via, which has designated part of its fleet exclusively for the company. Employees can call up the app and be driven home or to the office for $5, with Brookfield paying Via the rest of the cost of the trip. Drivers are regularly tested and the vehicles are cleaned every day.

“This made a big difference for our staff who rely on public transportation,” said Kingston. Parking spaces for those driving into the office were also expanded, he added.

On average there are about 500 people in the Brookfield office on a work day. Getting to and from the elevators involves following a one-way system, while an open plan office is now divided into cubicles via plexi-glass partitions. Employees must wear a mask whenever they are not seated at their desk.

Brookfield partnered with Carbon Health, a healthcare provider, to open a testing facility in Brookfield Place © Pascal Perich/FT
Brookfield Place employees must walk around the office with a mask on, and plexi-glass screens have been put up in open plan areas © Pascal Perich/FT

Kingston said Brookfield had also arranged for cleaning to happen more regularly. When he gets up to make a coffee, his desk has usually been cleaned during his absence, he said.

Air filtration has been upgraded and Brookfield Place has installed a new system incorporating technology typically used in hospitals — technology it has extended to the office buildings and shopping malls it owns across the US and Canada.

The next step, the company says, is playing an active role in the logistics of vaccinations, if called upon. “We want to help roll out vaccinations and provide facilities in our buildings,” said Kingston. “We are working closely with New York State on their rollout strategy.”

As for its own staff, Kingston said Brookfield employees “will get it when they are eligible”, but not that the company would mandate it for those who want to be in the office.

Brookfield said: “We plan to partner with Carbon Health to make the vaccination available to employees when possible and will encourage all employees to participate.”