When people left their offices as pandemic lockdowns set in back in March, they probably didn’t realize they’d be gone so long. Some, it turns out, would never return. Now, these long months later, some companies are seeking to cut their losses by offloading empty office space, and landlords are looking to sublease them, often at bargain-basement rates. But what’s inside some of these abandoned offices is less than picturesque.
“I saw on someone’s desk in a plastic bag an English muffin that was past the point of being green and fuzzy. It was dripping this disgusting liquid,” says Emilie Goldman, a broker at the commercial real estate company SquareFoot in New York. “It was so gross. Someone just left this here because they thought they were working from home for the rest of the afternoon.”
She’s been reentering deserted offices and showing them to potential subtenants, and encountering some nasty vestiges of office life past. There’s the rotten milk in office fridges, half-eaten and now rotting snacks on desks, and moldy coffee cups, as well as sad tableaux of dead plants, disheveled desks, and paperwork abandoned mid-completion.
“No one really tidied up their office, like, ‘Oh, let me clean up my office because I might not be back here for a year, or there might be people coming around to take our office.’ That thought didn’t cross anyone’s mind,” Goldman says. “And the responsibility is slightly on me to tidy that up, because it’s my job to sublease the space for my client.”
For the past six months, Goldman has focused almost exclusively on subleasing office space around Manhattan and Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood. There are the companies cutting back on their space needs as more employees work from home. Or businesses consolidating down from multiple locations to just one. Or those packing up completely and leaving the office world behind. All in all, it has created a glut of office space that’s available for subleasing, and some businesses willing to venture back to the uncertain indoors for dramatically discounted rents.
“Right now, you can get someone looking for a sublease a killer deal,” says Goldman. “On Park Avenue you can pay $20 a square foot now versus $90 or $100 before the pandemic. It’s unbelievable.” Buildings near major transit hubs are especially sought out, she says, and law firms tend to be the ones looking for subleasable space at this stage.
But what she walks into when preparing to show these spaces can be a mixed bag. Some bigger office buildings have cleaning built into their leases, she says, so the sacrificed bagels and stinky garbage cans have long been taken care of. Others, where cleaning may not have happened since most offices closed in March, require more attention before they’re ready to be shown.
“I’ll tidy it up a little bit, but I’m not going to get on my hands and knees, or mop it,” Goldman says. “There’s been times when I’ve said [to a landlord] ‘Hey, walking around your office, it looks like it might be a good idea to get a cleaner in here to do a once-over.'”
Overall, Goldman says, the disaster zones are less common than the slightly unkempt workplaces. “It’s not like every single person has a moldy English muffin and their socks on the floor. While human beings can be kind of gross, it’s not that bad,” she says. “It’s their office space and not their apartment, luckily.”
Even professionals make unintentional mistakes. Goldman herself was one of the people who left her office in March thinking she’d be back in a few days. Months later, when she went back in for the first time, she found the half-closed bottle of balsamic vinegar she’d left behind had devolved into a state that might dissuade a potential subtenant. “It had eroded out of the bottle onto my desk and onto the floor. It was just a sticky nightmare,” she says. But, with a little elbow grease, the nightmare was over.