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Some Columbia companies downsizing their office space, while others seek more elbow room

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Office occupancy has dipped in Columbia as the pandemic has gone on. File/Jessica Holdman/Staff

COLUMBIA — Some businesses in Columbia are reducing their office space as they reinvent themselves after the pandemic, according to a new report.

The amount of vacant office space in the Columbia market was up more than 2.5 percent in the first quarter of 2021 versus the same period the year before, according to a report issued April 6 by the real estate firm Colliers International-South Carolina. 

That represents some companies deciding to shrink their space as they re-evaluate how often they want staff in the building, said David Lockwood, the Colliers CEO in South Carolina.

Some companies are going to a "hybrid" model where staff on some days work from home, something businesses learned could work during the coronavirus pandemic.

At those companies, staff members might use communal desks when they come in rather than having a dedicated desk for each employee.

Other businesses are going further. Call centers, for instance, are taking serious steps toward an entirely work-from-home model rather than renting a large facility and filling it with workers, he said.

Those space reductions, however, have not been as sweeping as might have been expected six months ago during the coronavirus pandemic, Lockwood said.

Some businesses actually are seeking to add more space to what they have. Some companies have decided that they need to have more square footage so employees do not feel uncomfortably jammed together, said Matt Kennell CEO of the City Center Partnership, which promotes downtown Columbia.

"They're adapting and thriving," Kennell said.

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Most companies that are based in South Carolina have gone back to work in the office at least partially, said Peyton Bryant, a principal at the NAI Columbia real estate firm.

Local companies such as law firms are feeling the need to be there for their clients, Bryant said. 

National companies, however, have been putting off bringing staff back into the office and postponing long-term decisions about what work looks like in the future.

Those companies often have long-term leases and are just paying the rent now and waiting to make any changes, Bryant said.

The Columbia office market continues to be more steady than places such as Charlotte, Greenville or Charleston because of steady employers such as government agencies and the universities, Lockwood said.

"It adds huge stability to our market," Lockwood said.

Columbia also continues to feature lower rental costs per square foot for office space than those cities, which should help the city fill up space that does come available, he said.

That space up for rent will need to be in smaller parcels, Bryant said.

A national company swooping in to lease a whole floor of a building was a rarity before the pandemic and is not at all likely in a more work-from-home world, Bryant said.

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