New Brunswick

Back to the office: Now, later ... never

Erin Eagles says she doesn't miss the drive to her Saint John office and sees no rush to give up working from home.        

New Brunswick perspectives on a slow return to working downtown

Now that people have gotten used to working from home, will there be an urge to return to the office? (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)

Erin Eagles says she doesn't miss the drive to her Saint John office and sees no rush to give up working from home.        

After weeks of practice, she has figured out the best place to video conference with clients is a tidy corner of the basement playroom.

There, the lighting is fine and her family won't come looking for a snack.  

However, she says, her eight-year-old can be a distraction.  

"There's a constant little pull," said Eagles, a financial adviser with Sun Life.  

"Mostly from my daughter because if she knows I'm here, she wants my attention."

People who make a living off commercial real estate, and those who study that market, are waiting to see what workers like Eagles will choose to do next.

She's one of thousands of New Brunswickers who have learned to work from home because of COVID-19.  

She's had enough time to master the transition. She's seen the good and the bad.

Some predict the good will win out and that many will decide to abandon their commute at the expense of New Brunswick's downtowns. 

Quality of life

Business development analyst Ben Champoux said you'll see a change in Moncton.  

Normally, he said, some 20,000 people from nearby communities such as Riverview, Dieppe, Shediac and Bouctouche, drive into the city for their jobs.

Those 20,000 workers are the reason why the downtown bars and restaurants thrive.  

Business development analyst Ben Champoux says people he's talked to say they like working from home and feel they're just as productive. (Zoom)

But in the past two or three months, Champoux said, most of those people have had to stay home and some, who managed to work there, have discovered they like it.  

"This is very anecdotal, but I talk to friends on a regular basis and they're all telling me that they're as efficient as they used to be.

"Frankly, they're even more productive because they don't have to spend so much time in a car every morning and night. They don't have to take an hour to find a restaurant and eat. They can eat very quickly at home.

"And now they're seriously wondering, 'Do I really need to be physically back downtown and driving half an hour in the morning and half an hour at night, or could I spend it with my spouse and my kids?'"

Champoux said it's not a question of whether people will choose to stay home, but a question of how many. 

Tale of three towers: Assumption Place

Across the province, some big employers said they're taking a slow and cautious approach getting people back to work.  

Assumption Life said 98 per cent of its downtown Moncton workforce was able to do their jobs from home by the end of the week of March 16.

The company said it was a seamless transition that took less than 48 hours to execute.

Assumption Life says 98 per cent of its downtown Moncton workforce was able to do their jobs from home by the end of the week of March 16. (Radio-Canada)

"This current situation is showing us that working from home could be an option, depending on the role and responsibilities of each employee," wrote Thomas Raffy, director of communications.

Raffy said the company is working with the building's management company to come up with a multi-stage plan to get workers back into the tower.

That plan, he said, will also consider the daily feedback from employees on "how they're doing at home, how they're balancing their work and their personal lives, and how they perceive their return to work."

JDI headquarters, Saint John

J.D. Irving Ltd. said that across its operations in Canada and the U.S., it had 2,800 employees working from home while its mills and offices were being reconfigured to reduce the risk of COVID-19.

Those preparations included the production of some 30,000 signs to guide people on where to sit and stand to maintain physical distance.

The company said nearly 3,000 face masks were provided to workers in the mills.

Bathrooms had to be changed and workstations have all been equipped with disinfectant wipes and sanitizer.

J.D. Irving Ltd. says across its operations in Canada and the U.S. it had 2800 employees working from home while its mills and offices were being reconfigured to reduce the risk of COVID-19. (Robert Jones/CBC)

"The whole time, on the forest products side, from Lake Utopia to Irving Tissue in Moncton, not a single case of COVID, not a single layoff," said Mary Keith, vice-president of communications.

Now the company has mapped out its plan to bring them back. 

"It's almost harder than sending them home," Keith said.

At 300 Union St., workers have started to reoccupy the 12-storey building, one floor at a time.

Much like Moncton, Saint John has been missing its commuters — as many as 16,000 per day.

Full occupancy of the JDI headquarters puts 800 people in the city centre.

140 Carleton in Fredericton

Jeff Yerxa has 90,000 square feet of office space soon to open in Fredericton's downtown and he said he's not worried he'll find takers for the third of the building that isn't yet leased.  

He's the president and CEO Of Ross Ventures and once pitched his proposal for 140 Carleton as "Fredericton's sexiest building."

"It looks largely finished on the outside but the inside is still under a fair amount of construction," said Yerxa, who declined to say who is moving in.

Jeff Yerxa has 90,000 square feet of office space soon to open in Fredericton's downtown and he says he's not worried he'll find takers for the third of the building that isn't yet leased. (Gary Moore/CBC)

"We don't anticipate the first tenants taking occupancy there until late summer, possibly early fall."

Yerxa said he's watching the impact of COVID-19 on workers, and he thinks their reaction to working from home is mixed. 

"There's people who went home to work and loved working from home and there's people who went home to work and hated working from home.

"Then there's the other side of the equation, which is the employers. So there's employers who sent their staff home and found some of them very productive, possibly more productive working from home. And of course, the opposite is true, too.

"I don't think the need for office space is going to disappear."

Survey says ...

Alexandra Allen thinks demand won't disappear, but she wouldn't be surprised to see it quickly soften.  

As senior manager of the economic intelligence unit for Turner, Drake and Partners, she leads the team that runs the company's semi-annual survey on more than 38 million square feet of office and industrial space across Atlantic Canada.

She said recession drives change. Employers go looking for savings by reducing their footprints.

In the 90s, she says private offices were swapped out for cubicles.

Then the 2008 downturn drove the trend toward open and collaborative spaces, also known as "bullpens."

Alexandra Allen, a senior manager of the economic intelligence unit for Turner, Drake and Partners, thinks demand won't disappear but she wouldn't be surprised to see it quickly soften. (Zoom)

Allen said the post COVID recession will give some employers no choice. They'll have to keep their workers at home so they can save on rent.  

"It will be a survival mechanism," she said.

She said tenants can't rush for the exits because they often sign multi-year leases.

However, early indicators of a weaker market would show up as added incentives offered by the landlords, such as cash inducements to get tenants to move in, Allen said. 

"Then as vacancy creeps up, the next thing is that rental rates will have downward pressure on them. First, you'll see stagnation, then actual downward shifts."

Allen said she'll be looking for early downturn indicators in the next survey results due out in July. 

About the Author

Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.

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