Offices are empty – but they’re not doomed

The sudden shift to working from home has left some 75% of office buildings empty. But reports of the commercial property sector's death may be premature.

“Once-bustling European office blocks resemble ghost towns,” says Aimee Donnellan on Breakingviews: some 75% of buildings are empty. And this sudden shift to working from home that’s been forced on employers by the Covid-19 lockdowns “has created a new reality in the office rentals market”. In the UK, the “old standard of ten-year leases” – with rents that were only adjusted upwards – “has been abandoned”: new leases are for as little as three years. 

Now companies such as accountants PwC, social-media network Twitter and asset manager Schroders “are suggesting that this is set to be far more than a down cycle in rents”. They predict “a new era in which working from home is standard”, meaning lower long-term demand for offices. But that may be a leap too far. “Lower rents don’t necessarily presage a property revolution”.

Quite, says Nils Pratley in The Guardian. It’s too early to conclude that productivity will be the same when everybody is working from home in more normal times. Or that stay-at-home employees will feel sure that they are being noticed for promotion if they are not under their manager’s eye. Before deciding the office is dead, “let’s see what happens when the novelty wears off”.

So it’s striking how much pessimism “is already baked into share prices” for property firms, says Bryce Elder in the Financial Times. In the UK, Land Securities and British Land are down by more than 40% this year. “Deciding whether these moves are overreactions demands considerable guesswork”, but so far demand for prime office space in London remains resilient – not least because firms need to be able to space staff out until a vaccine arrives.

With these stocks at such steep discounts, any private-equity funds that don’t share the “doomsday views” about the sector “are highly likely to be taking an interest” in them. 

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