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How Will Social Distancing Requirements Change Commercial Real Estate?

Jul 15, 2020 by Maurie Backman

The U.S. economy may be hurting, and COVID-19 cases may be soaring, but that doesn't mean all businesses will be shutting down for the foreseeable future. Rather, it's in the best interest of many companies to push forward and try to work around the pandemic rather than crumble in its wake.

As such, in the coming months, it's likely that corporate America will pull some of its workers back into the office and that local businesses will continue to find ways to welcome customers into their storefronts -- at least as long as they're allowed to do so.

But for all of this to happen, social distancing will need to be maintained to some degree, and that's something investors in commercial real estate need to be aware of. Here are a few ways commercial spaces may need to change to accommodate our current normal.

1. Stores will need to be larger

Businesses without a ton of inventory to move may find it worth their while to rent new storefronts to improve their customer flow rather than stay in smaller spaces where they're forced to limit capacity. Even businesses that do go heavy on inventory may be willing to make the investment by switching to larger spaces as the need to give customers breathing room increases. As current leases expire, some business owners are likely to seek out larger spaces, which also means that the demand for smaller spaces could wane.

2. Offices will need to rethink their layouts

Cubicles may be old school, but they better lend to social distancing than the open office models many companies have adopted in recent years. Corporate tenants may choose offices that allow workers to spread out, and meeting-heavy businesses will likely seek office space with larger conference rooms, not smaller ones. Along these lines, passing lanes will become crucial. The risk of contracting COVID-19, or any other easily transmittable virus, like the flu, increases when people are packed into narrow spaces, so office hallways will need to be wider.

3. Automation will be key

Though touching contaminated surfaces isn't said to be the primary mode of COVID-19 transmission, health experts still note it as a viable concern. And it's not just COVID-19. Each year, the flu and other viruses pose a threat to the people who work in and visit commercial spaces. As such, we may see a shift to more automation that takes high-touch surfaces out of the equation. Buildings might, for example, program their elevators to stop automatically on every floor, thereby eliminating the need for button pushing. And while automatic fixtures like faucets and paper towel dispensers or air dryers are already a mainstay in restrooms, features like automatic doors could further curb the spread of germs.

4. Proper ventilation will be mandatory

It's still unclear how long COVID-19 or other viruses can linger in the air, but there's a reason health experts insist that transmission is far more likely to incur indoors than outdoors: Poor ventilation can stall viruses in the air other people breathe. Commercial spaces will need to account for this by upgrading their ventilation systems to move air more efficiently and installing filtration systems that work to eliminate harmful particles more quickly. Incidentally, the latter can work wonders for allergy sufferers, too.

The need for social distance may be with us for a while. There's little hope for a COVID-19 vaccine this year, and businesses aren't in a position to put operations on hold until 2021 or beyond. As such, they'll need to adapt to social distancing requirements, and the spaces they occupy will need to accommodate those needs as well.

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