What if Pennsylvanians don’t go back to the office?

York

YORK COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — It’s a conversation the commercial real estate community is having nationally and locally: What will be the lasting impact of COVID-19?

Almost all experts agree some people who are “WFH,” at it has come to be called because it’s so common — working from home — will work remotely for the long term, perhaps never returning to their cubicles on a full-time basis. But estimates vary widely as to what percentage of the population will do that, among people who have office jobs suited to remote work.

David Bode, managing partner of ROCK Commercial Real Estate in York, cautions that when analyzing the impact of COVID-19, it’s important to separate what truly changed because of the pandemic from pre-pandemic trends.

For example, he showed us large empty space in a downtown York building, which used to house a Comcast call center. Those workers — the people you call when your cable is out or when you have an issue with your bill — are now working with their cats on their laps at home, like so many other people. But Comcast sent them home before the pandemic, with remote-work technology improving to the point where it felt it didn’t need them at the office most days.

WellSpan, on the other hand, vacated spaces in two Duke Street office buildings during the pandemic and doesn’t plan to reoccupy those spaces. In other words, that trend didn’t start during the pandemic but has accelerated.

The same is true of e-commerce: Amazon dates to the 1990s, and by 2016, 8 percent of all retail sales were online, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis — that was up from less than 1 percent in 2000. But then the next eight points, a doubling to 16 percent, happened in the next four years, juiced by a spike in early 2020.

One helpful mitigating reality for York, according to Bode: the fact that e-commerce hurts physical stores but requires more warehouse space, and York County benefits when companies need more warehouse space. Another helpful fact, he says: York County office space had low vacancy rates before the pandemic, so backfilling the space vacated by companies like WellSpan is less daunting than in places like New York City, which entered the pandemic with higher vacancy rates.

“Yor york, we’ve always been a market that is pretty stable in the fact that we’ll be affected later than other areas of the country, and we rebound quicker,” Bode said.

On the other hand, York suffers perhaps disproportionately from another trend, which started before the pandemic: mergers and acquisitions involving local companies, which more often than not end up in a non-local company in charge.

Two companies are relocating to Charleston, South Carolina, alone never mind more than a dozen others that relocated, or are in the process of doing so, to cities like Chicago and elsewhere.

As for remote work, Bode said he’s hopeful the impact will be less severe than what some analysts fear.

“Maybe working remotely is not what they thought it would be,” he said of some remote workers and their employers, saying some miss the camaraderie of in-office culture.

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