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Anticipating the Shifting Tides: Forecasting Office Space Demand

The landscape of office spaces is poised for transformation, echoing the nuanced cadence of economic fluctuations and evolving work dynamics. Tracking the intricate dance between demand and supply, the NAIOP Office Space Demand Forecast for the second quarter of 2023 unveils a tapestry interwoven with intricate threads of change.

A retrospective glance reveals a striking negative net absorption of 21.3 million square feet across the national office market, ushering the vacancy rate to a towering 17.8 percent, a zenith last witnessed in the annals of the second quarter of 1993. The wake of the COVID-19 pandemic's formal conclusion in the United States by May 11, 2023, has not dispelled the lingering specter of remote and hybrid work arrangements. Instead, these modalities persist, casting a shadow over the demand for office spaces.

The labor market, robust yet tinged with trepidation about an impending economic downturn, has constricted the allure of fresh leases. With unemployment rates plummeting to 3.4 percent, the lowest since 1969, the scramble for talent sustains the sway of hybrid and remote work models. Despite a gradual tilt toward the reclamation of physical office spaces, the norm across many office-centric industries remains at three days a week in-office, with a fraction embracing even fewer in-office days or endorsing full remote work setups.

Statistics from Kastle Systems spotlight an average office occupancy of a meager 49.9 percent across the monitored 10 metropolitan markets. Simultaneously, the hesitance of enterprises to expand their leased spaces, coupled with preparations for a potential recession, has resulted in a 3.5 percent dip in occupied office space compared to pre-pandemic levels. This decline nudges the average office space per employee to a nadir not witnessed in 22 years, settling at a diminutive 152 square feet.

A revelatory study by CBRE unveils a staggering revelation: 80 percent of the increased vacancy from 2020 to 2022 congregated within a mere 10 percent of office edifices. This concentration underscores the challenge of functional obsolescence lingering as an impediment to the broader office market. Heightened interest rates have also cast a pall over office deal volumes, curtailing retrofit and conversion initiatives in the present fiscal realm.

The trajectory forward harbors an anticipation of continued negative net office space absorption, estimated at 24.4 million square feet across the forthcoming three quarters of 2023. However, the horizon of 2024 promises a shift, envisioning a positive net absorption projected at approximately 30.6 million square feet.

Economic nuances play a symphony, orchestrating the contours of office space demand. Despite economic growth decelerating to 1.1 percent in the first quarter of 2023 and inflation exhibiting a nominal uptick, the record-low unemployment rate and a rise in disposable income indicate a cushion of discretionary spending potential. However, prevailing uncertainties in both consumer and business realms might stunt economic acceleration.

The forecasting model employed here is a tapestry woven from historical economic and office real estate absorption data. Factoring in the prospect of a recession in 2023, the forecast anticipates a nuanced future. A 60 percent likelihood of a recession in the latter half of 2023 shadows the present projections. However, the model retains flexibility, envisioning a more pronounced negative absorption in the case of an economic downturn while anticipating higher absorption rates if the recession eludes.

The interplay of economic variables and office space demand intricately influences the trajectory ahead. The forecast, a dynamic entity, adapts to the changing macroeconomic fabric, providing a glimpse into the future of office space absorption. While aligned with CBRE office data, the forecast remains contingent on evolving market dynamics and may diverge from other datasets.

The forecast not only paints a vivid canvas of office space dynamics but also elucidates the symbiotic relationship between economic fluctuations and real estate landscapes. As the currents of change continue to sway, this forecast stands as a beacon illuminating the path ahead for office spaces in the intricate tapestry of the economy.

Source: Hany Guirguis, Michael J. Selier, Loan Analytics, The Appraisal Journal


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