COVID-19 exodus from Metro Vancouver offices didn’t make any less work for property managers

COVID-19 exodus that emptied many offices created new and varied demands for property managers related to the pandemic that kept them hopping.

Adam Spear inside Warrington PCI Management in Vancouver on March 1. PHOTO BY ARLEN REDEKOP /PNG

Many offices around Metro Vancouver remain mostly vacant as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its second year, but it hasn’t made less work for their property managers, according to Adam Spear, head of Warrington PCI Management.

“That first initial response in sort of late February, March (of 2020) was all about safety protocols and ensuring they were doing all the right things that could be done,” said Spear, president at the Vancouver management company.

At first, much of the additional work involved extra COVID-friendly cleaning for the few employees left behind in offices or in establishing protocols for clients who had workers show up after contracting the virus, Spear said.

“Buildings were low-occupancy, but for those who were working, they needed to feel safe,” Spear said.

Then Spear’s property managers found themselves in the middle of helping clients and their tenants navigate the federal government’s first commercial rent assistance program or helping them understand the other assistance schemes.

“It became really busy getting through the hundreds of rental assistance applications,” Spear said, alongside helping to support “less sophisticated tenants,” especially in the hard-hit retail sector.

“That was really very time consuming, and quite emotional,” Spear said.

All the extra work was enough that Warrington PCI had no qualms of making an acquisition, purchasing its local competitor, SDM Realty Advisers, right in the middle of the pandemic.

Spear declined to reveal the value of the transaction but the combined company will be B.C.’s biggest property management firm with 15 million square feet of offices, retail space and apartment buildings in their care, including Telus Garden, the Royal Centre and Microsoft’s Vancouver offices at 585 Beatty St.

“We saw it as an opportunity,” Spear said, with SDM’s partners Stephen Duyvewaardt and Dale Mumford wishing to remain with the operation and both companies experiencing growth.

Rather than cutting costs through the merger, Spear said, “we want to keep every person,” Spear said. “In fact we need more people. We’re both experiencing strong growth.”

In a news release, the companies said SDM Realty Advisers will continue to operate independently over the short-term, but Spears said the next bout of additional workload will involve helping clients through back-to-work plans as COVID-19 vaccinations program are ramped-up.

The province, on Monday, unveiled the framework for its mass vaccination plan for the public, which calls for inoculations to be made available to everyone over age 18 who wants them by the end of July.

And while there has been much speculation about whether the exodus of white-collar workers to make-do home offices will become permanent, Spear said they haven’t seen a lot of evidence that will be the case.

Major commercial realtor CBRE, in its market outlook report for 2021, declared that “remote work is here to stay,” but the trend will reshape how employers reconfigure offices rather than abandon large amounts of their space. A CBRE survey found that 67 per cent of employees were looking for a balance between office and remote work, the so-called “hybrid office.”

Downtown Vancouver’s office vacancy rate did climb to 8.4 per cent at the start of 2021, compared with 5.8 per cent in 2020, with new buildings coming online at the same time the pandemic hit.

“We have not had tenants saying they want to give back a lot of space because they’re going to go to a work-from-home model,” Spear said.

Instead, tenants are contemplating what Spear referred to as a “hoteling model” that allows employees to come into the office for periods of time while still working from home other times, but requires more space at work per employee to maintain distancing.

Most people Spear talks to among his tenants say “they can’t wait to get back to the office.”

“I think they missed that sense of culture and collaboration that is difficult to do over Zoom calls,” he said.

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