Feb 29: Office vacancy rates high, but many of us will be returning to office work soon

February 29, 2024

Among the many strange aspects of life during the recent pandemic was the “work from home” boom. Office buildings stood empty, nearby convenience stores and food courts closed, and there was no “rush hour” traffic update on the morning news. Everyone was at home.

But that may be changing.

A recent CTV News report sums up how different things were during the pandemic.

COVID-19 caused “a mass exodus to remote work that had never been seen before,” the broadcaster reports. In 2016, “only seven per cent of workers in Canada said they `usually’ worked from home,” the article notes. As recently as early 2022, that number had soared to 24.3 per cent, or nearly one quarter of all workers.

But people are starting to “trickle” back to the office, CTV reports. The “working exclusively at home” number dropped to 20.1 per cent in May of last year, although there were still 11.7 per cent of workers in “hybrid” work arrangements (some hours at home, some at the workplace) as recently as November.

There are a couple of issues that have arisen due to remote work, reports Global News.

First, there seems to be a disconnect between what employers want – a return to work in the office – and what employees want – to be able to continue to work from home.

“A quarter of Canadians who usually work from home would like to work from home more, while one in eight would like to work from home less — which the report says is a challenge for employers,” Global reports, citing information from Statistics Canada.

“A mismatch between employees’ preferences for telework and the hours they work from home may negatively affect employee retention,” reports Global, again citing the Statistics Canada report.

The second issue is that offices in downtown centres, such as Toronto, are experiencing record vacancy rates.

According to the Financial Post, “the vacancy rate for downtown Toronto office buildings reached a record high at the end of last year as a flood of largely empty space from newly completed projects hit the market.”

“The downtown office vacancy rate in Canada’s financial capital rose to 17.4 per cent as nearly 58,100 square metres of new space came to market during the fourth quarter, according to data released Tuesday by brokerage CBRE Group Inc.,” the Post reports.

“The poor performance of the Toronto market helped push Canada’s national downtown vacancy rate to its own record last quarter, hitting 19.4 per cent, the data show,” the article notes.

COVID-19 is cited as the chief reason for the vacancies, as well as the fact that major office construction projects can take years, the article adds.

Because office towers take many years to construct, Toronto’s still working through office projects that began before the pandemic.

“With the city accounting for nearly half of all new office construction nationwide, Canada’s net-absorption rate, or the pace that office space gets leased when it becomes available, would have been positive without the impact from Toronto’s new supply, the data show. Instead, that rate was negative in the period,” the article concludes.

Some observers fear that the business of building and leasing office space may have been permanently damaged due to the COVID-related work-from-home trend.

The Canadian Press reports that “the COVID-induced work-from-home shift has ravaged the office market as many employers re-evaluated their office footprint. Firms have also looked at reducing their real estate holdings as a way to rein in expenses to help cope with the current weaker economy.”

“It is likely that 10 to 15 per cent of demand has been permanently destroyed with (work-from-home) trends,” Maria Benavente, vice-president and real estate-focused portfolio manager at Dynamic Funds, tells The Canadian Press.

This strange, once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) situation may take a while to play out. It will be interesting to see if the trickle of “in-office” workers begins to become more of a river, correcting the problem of office vacancy and breathing life into downtown businesses that are supported by office workers. Or, will people fight for the right to work from their dining rooms? Stay tuned!

Wherever you work, saving for retirement is important. If you are lucky enough to have a workplace savings program, be sure you are taking part to the maximum. If you don’t, and are saving on your own for retirement, you may want to consider joining the Saskatchewan Pension Plan.

Open to any Canadian with registered retirement savings room, SPP’s voluntary defined contribution plan delivers expert investment management at a low cost, using a pooled fund. SPP will grow your savings, and when it’s time to put work behind you, you can choose between a lifetime annuity payment each month, or SPP’s Variable Benefit program. Find out why SPP has been helping Canadians build secure retirements since 1986 – check them out today!

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Written by Martin Biefer

Martin Biefer is Senior Pension Writer at Avery & Kerr Communications in Nepean, Ontario. A veteran reporter, editor and pension communicator, he’s now a freelancer. Interests include golf, line dancing and classic rock, and playing guitar. Got a story idea? Let Martin know via LinkedIn.

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