It may seem as if things have started to balance out–or slow down–following the craze that flowed through real estate during the height of the global pandemic–or maybe not. Commercial real estate, however, can give us many clues to how our society has been forever changed from some of the side effects. 

Take the office sector, for example. First as necessity, and then later in droves based on preference, the traditional office workers began (and continued) working from home. The sector itself was already tumultuous from a shift away from the segmented, compartmentalized spaces of the past, as employers began shifting toward the modern, playful, open spaces they felt the bulging millennial workforce demanded. 

Ping-pong tables, open concepts, comfortable couches and socialization areas dangled that were used to entice millennials to the workforce were scorned in favor of working from home and more isolated/private areas. 

However, if the pandemic proved out anything, it’s that the office worker really was craving the chance to work in peace, privacy, isolation and comfort, surrounded by their own, personalized things and the spaces that are comfortable and inspiring to them. 

And from many accounts, productivity increased as a result. While working from home, workers were without the distractions of colleagues, socialization and a sociological need to look busy during the times they actually just needed time to recharge. And in many cases, the time necessary to recharge or get comfortable for maximum productivity was far less than the time it took to look busy to avoid the scornful eye of a supervisor. 

But what does this mean for the office space left behind? A surplus of square footage now sits empty awaiting workers who may never return at the capacity they once did. Employers who feel more comfortable keeping an eye on employees, or who need them physically in person, are left wondering how to use the square footage to best incentivize employees to come in, if even on hybrid schedules. However, if there is one thing we’ve learned from the popularity of work-from-home models, it’s that what employers thought their workers wanted, likely wasn’t the case at all. 

Meanwhile, employers spent so long talking about what to do for the millennials, that they forgot to take note of Generation X moving up into being the strongest resource they have. Because of the rough road Millennials had to face coming out of college straight into the recession, many are used to depending on their own ingenuity to stitch together the career they need. As a generation, they have not looked to an employer or workplace to provide the things they crave.

Generation X, however, still thrives on the security an employer and a steady/dependable work schedule can provide. The eldest among Generation X are turning 60, and yet, we’re not seeing them start downhill toward retirement. Instead we are seeing them planning to push retirement out and work longer, making them more dependable–and valuable–to the employer. 

So what is it Generation X wants in a physical office space, and how can we use the surplus to help meet their goals and right the path of the topsy-turvy workforce? 

With all the extra office square footage available, it’s time for employers, and those of us in commercial real estate to get creative and look at what we can do to really listen to the workforce this time around. How do we make the office environment a more productive space for when it needs to be used. If we need our employees to be physically present, let’s think about what we want out of those interactions. If it is productivity, how do we use the extra square footage to create spaces that limit distractions and mimic the places our workers are most productive. If it is collaboration and collisions, how do we flip the idea of the traditional–and the contemporary nontraditional—office space on its head and create spaces not meant for socialization, but for brainstorming and collaboration. 

Somewhere along the line, office spaces made a misstep in their evolution, and we saw a hard push against that when the opportunity presented itself to stay at home after the pandemic. But now incidentally, we have an opportunity in commercial real estate, and an abundance of affordable resources, to correct and build the office environments that actually might entice the workers we need to spend time in them.