They Want You Back at the Office

Commercial real estate brokers tend to be chest-thumping optimists. Post-pandemic corporate life is putting that to the test.

By Rebecca R. Ruiz

When Alice Fair flaunted north-facing views from the 48th floor of a skyscraper in Lower Manhattan, her audience was quiet. Most were on mute.

Ms. Fair, a commercial real estate broker, was seeking subletters at 3 World Trade Center on behalf of Uber, offering up more than 80,000 square feet of office space — a speck of the 102 million square feet on the Manhattan market. She made it clear there was room to negotiate.

This year, Ms. Fair, who works at CB Richard Ellis and has also represented Pinterest, TikTok and Time Inc., has returned to left-behind offices, disposing of dead plants and dead fish for clients, forwarding their mail and leading prospective subletters on virtual tours via Zoom.

“This morning was not a pretty one. It was: Do not open the fridge,” she said, referring to a visit in Midtown. “I can’t tell you how many times I’m like, ‘Is this part of my job?’”

The people who profit off corporate America’s use of offices are trying to coax corporate America back to the office.

Having refined their sales pitches to play up air filtration systems, flexible lease terms and swing space — “as you think about who’s going to be coming back in, or if you’ll need that large boardroom,” as Ms. Fair put it — brokers are back in their own workplaces in force, acknowledging that some things have changed while also seeking to prove to their clients, and themselves, that the office will soon return to something close to what it was.

With New York City set to reopen fully in July, and many companies expecting to summon workers back this summer and fall, those in commercial real estate are hoping that the rebirth they’ve tried to hasten may finally happen.

“We opened our offices as soon as we were allowed across the country,” said David Lipson, a vice chairman for Savills, a global brokerage firm. “If you’re in the office real-estate business, should you be comfortable getting too comfortable working from home?”

The industry, coming off a boom of continuous growth, has seen commissions fall off as vacancy rates have climbed to their highest levels in decades. Real estate executives, characteristically bullish on their prospects, are facing existential questions.

Offices have long been something of a tautology: Companies have needed offices because to be a company, you had to have an office. But more than a year of forced work-from-home for corporate America has upended that truism, leaving some C.F.O.s running the numbers on potential savings in rent and some employees loath to return to life as it was.

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