The Four Horsemen of the Office Apocalypse

February 14, 2024 Don Catalano Don Catalano

Amid the cultural and economic shifts of the last few years, we are experiencing the fallout of a total Office Apocalypse, and the implications for office tenants are substantial. 


Yet, as history has shown, disasters of this magnitude rarely occur without warning signs. And in this case, we can call the harbingers of CRE doom “The Four Horsemen of the Office Apocalypse.”


Remote capability takes the lead, redefining where and how we work. Meanwhile, high vacancy rates challenge traditional ideas about bustling office spaces and are shaking the foundation of the office market, evidenced by dropping property values. And above it all, high interest rates come galloping, bringing financial challenges for landlords and discouraging future office development. So, join us as we explore the stories behind these four horsemen, each playing a crucial role in the evolution of how we perceive, utilize, and invest in the offices of the future.


1. Remote Work as a Catalyst

2. High Vacancy Rates 

3. Dropping Property Values 

4. High Interest Rates


Or go further right now to unlock a deeper understanding of the current market upheavals and learn practical solutions for tenants by downloading our comprehensive guide, "Surviving the Office Apocalypse." Gain in-depth exploration and insights into remedies that can safeguard your CRE portfolio against nightmare scenarios.

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1. Remote Work as a Catalyst

The seeds of this transformation were sown during the pandemic when Americans experienced a newfound work/life flexibility, unshackling themselves from two-way commutes, traffic, and long office days.


work from home


Three years later, the reluctance to relinquish this quality of life is felt all around. The WFH experiment not only proved its feasibility but showcased sustained and, in some cases, enhanced productivity compared to prior metrics.


Employers, recognizing the advantages, seized the opportunity to implement remote work arrangements, recognizing substantial cost savings. Commercial real estate, a significant organizational expense, faced downsizing as companies slashed square footage, opting for indefinite WFH schedules. The financial implications on organizations' EBITDA were profound, making it a compelling strategic move.


Yet, attributing the transformation solely to the pandemic would be incomplete without acknowledging the role of another game-changer: high-speed, low-cost broadband in every house. If COVID-19 was the match that ignited change, broadband served as the essential fuel, enabling the seamless transition to widespread WFH practices.


The technological revolution of the past decades paved the way for the fully realized potential of tools and structures embedded in our systems. COVID-19 acted as the catalyst that compelled a global-scale utilization of these technological advancements, demonstrating their power in maintaining productivity without significant losses.


The connectivity provided by broadband allowed individuals to work efficiently from virtually anywhere, making the idea of a centralized office space less crucial and, in some cases, obsolete.


2. High Vacancy Rates

High vacancy rates signify the unraveling of traditional office paradigms. The once-central role of the physical office in professional life is diminishing, and the surplus of empty commercial properties is evidence of this radical shift.


empty desks-1

And as the value of the office swiftly drops, the drive to reduce costs and optimize financial performance is a huge motivator for companies to cut footprints.


Businesses are strategically shedding surplus office spaces, and this Right-sizing phenomenon represents the mark of an evolution that likely won't be reversed. 


Many companies that still choose to occupy space are taking a harder look at their portfolios. Often, they find that they don’t need as much space in a hybrid environment. In fact, when the top 500 global companies were surveyed last year, over half had planned or made Right-sized reductions to their portfolios. From J.P. Morgan to Meta, major titans are reducing their footprints. 


So, even if businesses are renewing leases, they often reflect a Right-sized, smaller square footage. Of course, this has taken office vacancy rates to new heights.


climbing vacancy rates




Not only are landlords struggling to fill their spaces adequately, but the abundance of vacant properties also gives tenants significant leverage in negotiations.


Businesses seeking to lease or purchase properties are capitalizing on the market conditions, often benefiting from fire-sales and favorable terms. Meanwhile, landlords are compelled to accept reduced returns as new tenants dictate terms based on prevailing supply and demand dynamics.


3. Dropping Property Values

The once-sturdy foundations of commercial property values are now experiencing a profound reevaluation, mirroring the recalibration of our work culture and spatial need.


one person in empty office


As property values experience this downward trajectory, landlords are grappling with the need to adapt to the shifting dynamics of the market. The demand for lower rents from tenants, coupled with increased vacancies, forces landlords into negotiations for more favorable lease terms.


Landlords find themselves compelled to be more accommodating in rent negotiations, employing strategies to both attract and retain tenants in the face of these challenging conditions.


However, the implications of dropping property values extend beyond the negotiating table. Cities witnessing these fire sales of commercial properties are facing substantial consequences.


Communities that were once accustomed to a steady influx of property taxes are now grappling with significant cuts. This reduction in property tax revenues has a cascading effect, impacting the local infrastructure, public services, and community development projects that rely on this financial support.


The emergence of what can be termed a "doom loop" amplifies these challenges. Dropping property values trigger negotiations for lower rents, leading to reduced income for landlords. As landlords face financial strain, communities reliant on property taxes suffer, causing a ripple effect that further depresses local economies. This cyclical downturn, both economically and socially, underscores the interconnected nature of the challenges posed by dropping property values in the midst of the office apocalypse.


4. High Interest Rates

And if landlords weren’t down yet, they are getting one swift, final, and debilitating kick in the form of high interest rates.


As interest rates climb, the cost of borrowing for property owners escalates, exerting financial pressure that reverberates through the entire industry. This heightened financial strain can undermine property owners' capacity to refinance existing loans or secure new financing, a challenge that can erode property values and dampen the overall vitality of the commercial real estate market.


The Value of a Commercial Broker


For landlords grappling with variable-rate mortgages, the ascent of interest rates translates into a burdensome escalation in debt payments. This increased financial burden not only restricts the financial resources available for essential property improvements and maintenance but also casts a pall over value-enhancing initiatives. The domino effect continues as the reduction in affordability due to higher interest rates contributes to a slowdown in property transactions, diminishing demand within the commercial real estate sector.


The challenges intensify against the backdrop of inflation, a frequent companion to rising interest rates. Inflationary pressures inflate operating costs for businesses, impacting property owners' budgets for utilities, maintenance, and property management. This perfect storm of financial constraints leaves landlords navigating the risk of loan defaults, raising the risk of distressed asset sales that could further destabilize the market.


Developers, sensing the headwinds created by high-interest rates, exhibit a cautious stance. The current climate drove investment in speculative developments to a halt, raising questions about future supply if the market evens out.


industrial construction


Office construction, a key indicator of market health, has witnessed a precipitous decline, with Investopedia reporting that office construction has fallen by more than half since 2020. The stark numbers reveal a 5.3% decrease in office space under construction in the fourth quarter, adding to the narrative of a market grappling with instability.


As interest rates continue to cast their influence, landlords find themselves at the intersection of financial constraints and market uncertainties. The keys returned to the bank become a metaphor for the challenging decisions forced upon landlords, echoing the broader narrative of an office apocalypse characterized by a complex interplay of economic forces and structural changes that are reshaping the commercial real estate landscape.


Surviving The Office Apocalypse

The combination of these factors have triggers massive delinquency rates among corporate landlords.


 Delinquency rate for all commercial properties rose to 4.66%, up from 4.51% in December and just 2.94% in January 2023. That represents a 59% increase in the past year.

-The Trepp Commercial Mortgage-Backed Securities (CMBS) Monitor


This marks dangerous territory for corporate tenants. For tenants, signing a lease with a landlord who may default on their obligations poses significant risks. It can lead to disruptions in business operations, financial losses, and legal complications.


Therefore, tenants must exercise caution and conduct thorough due diligence before entering into lease agreements. They must assess the financial stability and track record of potential landlords to mitigate the risks associated with default. In this tumultuous environment, navigating the office space market requires vigilance and strategic decision-making to safeguard against the perils of the office apocalypse.


And that's exactly why we wrote our book, "Surviving the Office Apocalypse." The office market is in the midst of massive upheaval, and unfortunately, no one's talking about what tenants can do to protect themselves.  


This comprehensive guide is your roadmap through the chaos, offering strategies, insights, and practical advice tailored for tenants in these uncertain times. To navigate this new landscape with confidence, download your copy of "Surviving the Office Apocalypse" now.

Surviving The Office Apocalypse



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