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March 27, 2020  

Work-at-Home Routine Tests Industry Pros

Sharing an “office” with kids and dogs. Rationing laptops and bandwidth. Dividing time between due-diligence reports and home-schooling.

These are just some of the realities industry pros are dealing with as they adjust to the new normal of working from home for the foreseeable future. As the coronavirus pandemic forces millions of people to stay home, lenders, servicers, bankers and investors accustomed to private offices and secure conference rooms are having to adjust to frustrating restrictions on space and time.

A New York-based executive with a major bank is working side-by-side with her college-age daughter, whose school is temporarily closed.

“It’s so congested here, you can’t really be more than 6 feet from someone,” the banker said. “You’re trying to do business but you have all these other distractions. If you have young kids, I can just imagine.”

Such inconveniences are relatively minor compared to the prospect of an economic collapse and prolonged shutdown of the commercial real estate-finance sector. But the transition to a work-at-home routine has been jarring nonetheless, as market pros struggle to balance their responsibilities to clients and colleagues on the one hand and spouses and children on the other.

A buy-side professional who lives outside of New York said he’s been spending a lot of time refereeing screen time for his children, who are attending classes online.

“Everyone is trying to get used to the noise, the distractions and the discomfort of having to do their job from home,” he said. “Add to that the stress of what is going on in the market — it’s no fun.”

Added a commercial MBS lender: “If you’re a hermit, it’s a great setup. But most of us in this business like to deal with people. We’d rather be at work.”

For the most part, the transition from office to home has gone smoothly, thanks to the availability of mobile devices and teleconferencing tools. Indeed, many employees of banks and large asset managers have long been accustomed to working from home on a periodic basis, with once-a-week routines increasingly common.

“The technology has gotten so good and so cheap that even little firms like ours have no problems working online,” said an executive at a CMBS advisory shop.

A capital-markets broker said he’s been on conference calls and in virtual meetings via Zoom 12 hours a day. Those interactions often are interrupted by barking dogs, package deliveries and the occasional child meltdown. “People are going to be making calls with kids in the background and wearing T-shirts and hats,” he said. “That’s where we are today, and that’s okay.”

It’s one thing to work from home when your spouse is at work and the kids are at school — quite another when the living room and dining room are tripling as office, classroom and daycare center for a family of five.

“The problem is when my kids are homeschooling next week, to have four people on Wi-Fi, video conferencing is going to be impossible,” the broker said.

A CMBS sales specialist said he has been taking heat from family members for working such long hours. “They are giving me the eye right now,” he said one afternoon this week. “I have to get off and watch a movie.”

While most lending activities can be accomplished from home, underwriting protocols usually call for on-site inspections. Without seeing a property, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to close a financing deal.

Some lenders are improvising by using video cameras to conduct virtual walk-throughs.

“More and more, people are saying you can’t go in [a building], so it’s getting harder and harder to try to figure out,” one lender said.

Despite the obstacles and headaches, most industry pros have been taking the new routine in stride. Some said the experience of working from home holds positive lessons.

“To me, it’s refreshing,” the CMBS lender said. “Every call I’ve been on — and some of these are very important calls — you hear a kid coughing or a dog barking in the background or a kid walking up in the middle of the call and asking a question. It shows that we’re all human.”

Said an executive at a foreign bank: “In times like this, you realize what’s important. Family and your health are most important, and you quickly learn what becomes secondary. Business can co-exist with family and your health, and you’re seeing more openness to background noise and, ‘Can you hold on real quick, I’m outside.’ ”

Even so, industry insiders said they can’t wait for the commercial real estate-finance sector to return to normal — and have little doubt that it will.

“When this is over, when we are allowed to go out of our houses again, you can’t tell me that things aren’t going to bounce back,” a CMBS investor said. “Are you telling me that no one ever wants to go a hotel again? I doubt that, because I think all anyone wants to do is get back to what we consider normal.”