As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its second year, a walk or drive through the streets of downtown Montreal remains ominously quiet.
The vacancy rate of commercial office space in the fourth quarter of 2020 was 12.1 per cent, the highest in three years according to a report issued earlier this month by Devencore, a real estate brokerage and advisory firm.
“No one saw this coming. It’s a disaster,” Jean Laurin, Devencore president and CEO, told Global News.
Since the start of the pandemic, 1.3 million square feet of real estate office space (slightly less than the 40-storey National Bank office tower being built downtown) has added to the vacancy rate, according to the report.
Montreal is not alone in struggling through the pandemic, according to Laurin.
“It’s like that around the world. This is not just a local situation — this is a global situation,” he said.
However, Laurin is optimistic for the future. He says the pandemic is giving employers the opportunity to re-think the corporate layout of the workspace. He believes it will likely allow for fewer people working in the same area creating more individual space.
Laurin says some of the best thinking occurs when people are physically working at the same location.
“I think that gradually within a couple of years we will get back to something that will be closer to the future of normality,” he said.
More office workers are expected to return to the office as COVID-19 vaccines are administered, transmission levels of the coronavirus decrease and the government lifts more restrictions.
“Employers will want to facilitate the coming back of employees,” Michel Leblanc, the president and CEO of the Montreal Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce told Global News.
A hybrid approach of working from home and in the office is what some analysts anticipate will occur in the future.
“There’s going to be a small decrease in the occupancy to match the work from home plus social distancing combined together,” said Jacinthe Lachapelle, a sales and client strategy analyst at CBRE, a commercial real estate and investments firm.
Laurin, Leblanc and Lachapelle all expect the office return to work to be gradual and phased in over time. Many hope that will occur sooner than later, but only under safe conditions and when the coronavirus threat has substantially subsided.