More Than 1-in-5 Companies Plan Reduction In Office Space

AICPA survey finds a rise in remote work adds pressure to reconfigure office space, but long-term leases limit changes for now.

Despite widespread use of remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most businesses have yet to plan a reduction in their traditional brick-and-mortar office space, according to data from the first-quarter AICPA Economic Outlook Survey, which polled CFOs, controllers and other senior-level CPAs and management accountants in business and industry.

office spaceSome 72 percent of business executives surveyed said their organizations had no plans to shrink their office footprint over the next 12 months. That’s down five percentage points from the third quarter of 2020, the first time the question was asked. The most significant shift occurred in the percentage of companies that said they were planning to reduce traditional space by 10 to 24 percent over the next 12 months. Nine percent of survey takers said their companies planned to pare back within those parameters, compared to five percent in the third quarter.

The topline results of the AICPA survey – which identified an increase in optimism regarding the U.S. economy and a rise in inflation fears – were released earlier this month.

office spaceOverall, some 21 percent of business executives said their companies expected some downward revision in office space in the coming year, compared to 18 percent in the third quarter last year. The lack of action by others reflects to a large degree the reality of long-term leases – many companies that do not own their properties outright lack escape clauses, so they can either try to informally renegotiate or wait for renewal. Landlords, battered themselves by the pandemic, are often unwilling to make additional concessions with a more optimistic economic outlook emerging due to the stepped-up pace of vaccinations.

An overwhelming majority of business executives say their companies currently use a hybrid mix of remote and onsite work, with eight percent saying their organizations employ all-virtual operations. The latter figure is about double pre-pandemic levels, according to survey data from the past year.

Most business executives say they expect their companies to be back to pre-pandemic levels of operation within the year or are at that level already. Still, more than a quarter (27 percent) said it would take a year or more to climb back.

“As the recovery progresses and we move towards the next-normal, more and more people will return to their traditional places of work,” said Ash Noah, CPA, CGMA, vice president and managing director of management accounting learning, education and development for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing the AICPA and CIMA. “But this doesn’t change the fundamental shifts we’re seeing toward more virtual and remote operations, which have been greatly accelerated during the past year. Some functions can’t be performed effectively remotely, of course, and we expect to see more office sharing, ‘hoteling’ of office space and more decentralized operations in general. The nature of office space and how it is utilized will continue to evolve towards a more flexible and hybrid operating model.”

The first-quarter AICPA Business and Industry Economic Outlook Survey was conducted from Feb. 2-24, 2021, and included 693 qualified responses from CPAs who hold leadership positions, such as chief financial officer or controller, in their companies.

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