Coronavirus turned the world upside down in 2020 and discussions about the future of the office dominated the discourse. But we entered the new year full of hope which was reflected in the CoreNet Global UK Chapter Q1 theme ‘Repositioning for Growth. As a chapter we set out to discover who were the winners in the pandemic and how organisations were repositioning for future success.
The high attendance rates and active participation in our events demonstrates that people are looking for answers to the questions being posed by their businesses. From hybrid working to the hub and spoke model, we have had experts from across the industry cover off the key topics that every CRE professional is talking about.
A record 299 delegates signed up to hear from David Rea, chief economist EMEA at JLL, speaking at our Predictions and Resolutions debate. The short-term outlook was much more uncertain than the long-term one which is unusual, he said. Three months later, many of his predictions are now coming to pass, namely that “there will be no one-size-fits-all rebound across EMEA” and “many behavioural changes (e-commerce, home-working, commuting) will stick; and eventually they will become the norm”.
The Evolution of the CRE Role
In terms of the CRE community repositioning for growth, this is where the real challenge lies – how do workspace professionals adapt to what amounts to the greatest change we are ever likely to see. Central to this is a flexible approach to work and an agile approach to real estate that can adapt to this. As Adam Hoy, VP head of worldwide real estate and facilities at GSK, said at our predictions event: “It has advanced our ability to demonstrate different types of hybrid working situations and fast-tracked thinking, it’s been a cultural accelerant.”
Hoy believes that we, as a sector, have a real opportunity. “Smart use of space will become a competitive advantage for organisations” and to enable this he has been engaged with a variety of different executives within the business to elevate the importance of real estate. This is a theme that our sessions have come back to on several occasions - that CRE has never been as high on the agenda. Business is asking existential questions about the workplace, and the CRE world must collaborate with their HR and tech counterparts to respond.
Closer Alignment with HR
Working closely with HR colleagues has been a focus for much of the quarter’s events. It’s collaboration between CRE and HR that will enable hybrid-working, and as Paul Crayford, real estate director EMEA at Aon, succinctly put it: “there is a big difference between allowing remote working and adopting it as a policy.”
Crayford, like many of his peers who have spoken on our panels, sees a closer, symbiotic role between departments, new job titles and shared outcomes, which need to be measured. The two departments, which have diverged over time, need to speak the same language to enable customer experience.
Our first event of the year touched on this theme: “How to thrive and not just survive flexible working.” Trust, communication and choice, were all flagged as the key elements of consideration. Coach Amelia Saberwal who spent many years in the real estate industry, said the social contract between employer and employee has changed. “It’s a journey and we need permission to redesign our solutions and change as we go along.” Lydia Ings, HR director at Colliers, summed this up “Covid has changed the relationship between employers and employees. It’s taught us that balance is possible between home and work. When we’re comfortable, we can be our authentic selves and we can therefore do our best work.”
During our fourth CoreNet session, The Rise of Suburbia, we were joined by Zurich, the financial services group, which has conducted a substantial survey of its workforce. David Morley of Zurich reported that his workforce fall into a 40:40:20 model - those who want to return to work, a hybrid home/office model and those who want full time remote working. To address this demand, he will be using additional capacity from the flexible workspace market to provide a more diverse location spread. But his findings are similar to other firms from the financial services sector, with the workforce looking to sample a greater variety of choice outside of traditional city centre locations.
The Office as Experience
To draw workers back to offices over the coming year will require a real focus on workspace quality and all the factors this entails. Mark Tyson, head of property operations at Legal and General Investment Management rather succinctly put it: “The sub-standard office is dead.” He said that workspace can no longer be quantified on cost alone, and metrics that support wellness and productivity will be key with landlords now giving this real focus. Air quality, light and noise will form key focus on this office experience and easily understandable performance metrics will be formulated accordingly. Tyson even flagged the idea of property passports and building MOTs as providing customers with a simplified view of performance.
There is a distinct onus on landlords to improve the office but ultimately much of the workspace sits with in-house CRE teams. The role has now adapted to support people create a sense of belonging, build shared purpose, and enhance opportunities for collective activities. This is an exciting opportunity for workspace professionals and one in which they need the supply chain of design, strategy, tech and HR to develop. The four pillars of performance were addressed at webinar #2: mindset, movement, nutrition and recovery. CRE can facilitate much of this through the workplace but need specialists across the sector to support initiatives in these areas.
Where do we work now?
Our third event - Work:Journey into the Unknown - assessed how the physical workplace may change. There are exciting possibilities unlocked by remote working but the grim prospect of a two-tier workforce (those in the office and those at home) and the ensuing pressures this may bring about are a real risk. There are solutions to mitigate this. Giving people control over their working preferences; building communication skills; and the different aspects of ergonomics: physical, cognitive and emotional will all knit together the physical and digital workplace.
For BT, one of the UK’s largest employers in the regions, creating engaging workspace right across the UK has always been a priority. The focus now is to really narrow in on the locations that give them access to the greatest talent pool of technology-savvy recruits and those younger employees that might be described as “digital-natives”. To do this requires access to population and workforce data and marrying that up against office supply to create options that accurately capture this limited talent supply.
The above issues faced by Zurich and BT, and eloquently shared on the CoreNet panels, reflect the dilemma faced by many employers of all sizes. To initiate a return to work, and one that offers reassurance to staff and optimal working environments, requires choice. As the panel posited, this is a challenge for CRE professionals and one that will see many of them looking to their supply chain for new options, and at a time when they are being asked by their boards to reduce capital expenditure.
“If we understand how work will change then we can explore how the workplace needs to change to support it.” Steve Wright, head of CoreNet’s Workplace group
It has been a fascinating quarter of events for the CoreNet UK Chapter. Each event showed, in different ways, how leaders from our sector are stepping up to meet the massive challenges we have faced down since March 2020. There is a very real sense that there is much to feel positive about. Ings, who acknowledged that she was optimistic about the long-term legacy of the pandemic, said that the wider benefits of the change had not yet been appreciated. “It will act as a catalyst for so many organisations who did not believe that working differently was possible.” Learning from our peers has never seemed so necessary, and the shared sense of direction at each of our events so far this year has been palpable. As our colleagues return to the workplace in the coming weeks and months, the role of the CRE profession will be in sharp focus - we must grab this opportunity with both hands.