Harnessing Technology to Future-Proof Offices: Insights from The OCCUPEERS at BWT UK
Updated: Jul 1
Mark Davies, Principal Director at TP Bennett, hosts the OCCUPEERS Tribe at BWT UK in a discussion about future-proofing offices, opening up by noting the major blurring of the line between workplace and home over the last 14 months. The hesitancy of some organisations to embrace home working has now been eroded, providing a unique set of challenges, as well as opportunities for occupiers and their employees.
CREATING EXPERIENCE for employees
Jeff Schumacher, Real Estate and Security Regional Lead, Ireland, UK, & MEA at Microsoft, believes traditional expectations of office experience will change dramatically. He says that equity between the workplace and home workers will increase, for example, continuing that Microsoft will use data to drive an understanding of how their teams, customers, and those who utilise their facilities will react.
Various technologies are utilised, ranging from poll surveys to full building people-counting. “We’ll use a bit of time to let people vote with their feet and demonstrate to us what is working and what isn’t,” Schumacher relates, adding that a lot has to do with culture; real estate delivers a lot of team and community aspects people desire.
To retain the culture, to retain the human connection, we need to bring people back to the office
Markus Huber, Vice President EMEA/UKI Real Estate & Workplace Services at Salesforce, says that maintaining this sense of community in a multi-regional company is two-fold: creating products or tools to allow work from home, while remembering that this is still a human business. “To retain the culture, to retain the human connection… we need to bring people back to the office,” he asserts, adding that the biggest challenge is during this slow reopening phase, making people aware that an office return will be a different (not necessarily better) experience.
Jessica Rentzos Van Rozen, Director of Real Estate, EMEA at GSK, highlights the need to understand how to create the right experience for those returning under uncertainty and constantly evolving circumstances: “For us the biggest challenge is to keep track of that and be agile enough to work with the changing demands,” she says.
Rentzos believes people will move towards desk booking, while AI will be needed to balance work groups and available space, while the key will be to ensure the increased background technology is frictionless and doesn’t create barriers for returning office workers.
For more on experience curation, read our Tenant Experience blog.
UNDERSTANDING BEHAVIOUR post-Covid
Claudia Bastiani, Director, Real Estate Services at Mastercard, says everyone probably agrees that their biggest challenge is understanding how people are going to behave in the post-pandemic context, meaning there will probably be more careful analysis of data from utilisation tools. “I think the first things for all of us is to understand generally what the pattern of utilisation is across the whole portfolio,” she notes.
Bastiani says it will be vital for real estate industry players to continue holding discussions and sharing stories moving forward, to learn from each other and look at how to advance current technology tools to give the real information now necessary.
Michael Whitney, Senior Director of Corporate Real Estate, Accenture, says that for global corporations, getting people back to the office will be a different proposition in each country, but the focus should always be on getting them back safely and quickly, because people are really keen to return.
Whitney echoes Huber’s sentiment that the office experience – driven by health and safety protocols – may not be great to start with, but looking to the future it is all about experience, with everybody talking about the hybrid model.
Another common theme is the need for equitable experience and participation, and there will need to be iterative investments made in technology to support this. Whitney notes that incredible leaps have been made in collaborative tech already. “We need to encourage people to engage and participate across multiple platforms, to have that seamless experience,” Whitney says. Technology will be crucial: “There’s the technology of collaboration and then there’s the technology within the space itself, to make that space much more useable (and) create that intelligent workspace,” he expands.
INTEGRATING AND DEVELOPING new and young employees
Davies touches briefly on the challenge of knowledge sharing, particularly with younger employees, asking Suzan Dixon, Head of Workplace: Europe and Americas at Standard Chartered, whether this is something they are dealing with.
Dixon agrees that this is something everyone is going to face, the challenge being especially difficult with new starters. She also points out that most of the younger generation now have smaller living spaces and don’t have the luxury of a home office, so she anticipates that they will want to return to the office.
We have this buddy system, basically ensuring people feel part of the group
Dixon points out that inductions will differ by region, but Standard Chartered is trying, through a partnership between HR and technology, to ensure a good understanding of inductions and new platform rollouts from the outset. “We have this buddy system, basically ensuring people feel part of the group… with everything that’s happening, I think it’s even more (important) than before,” Dixon says.
THE WOW FACTOR: Attracting and retaining talent
Bastiani adds that there will also need to be a reassessment of office ‘wow factor’ to attract and retain talent, potentially including digital artwork, ‘look and feel’ experiences, technology targeted at fitness and wellness settings, sophisticated lighting designs, more immersive experiences, and fun offerings to maximise on social interactions.
Alan Bainbridge, Director of Workplace and Corporate Real Estate at the BBC, says that while a big mix change in the workforce has suddenly started, these changes were already happening, albeit more slowly. “All this has done is accelerate something that might have happened over ten or five years,” he explains, adding that attention is now on the human experience, rather than the building itself.
I think the big connection that has to be made is between real estate and facilities management
“It’s all about supporting the people the best possible way you can. I think the big connection that has to be made is between real estate and facilities management,” he notes. “We need to use the technology to look after the people… the office is now a hosted experience”.
Bainbridge also highlights the need to focus on things that can develop, move, and flex quickly, as the landscape in 24 months’ time will certainly be different to what we expect, in terms of available technology, how that tech is used, and the way people behave.
This is a massive HR exercise to make sure people are managed, supported, cared for!
“We’re going to an agile workforce across the UK,” says Bainbridge, “and we’re starting to change our employment policies, support, and code of behaviour for everyone when you’re in the building… this is a massive HR exercise to make sure people are managed, supported, cared for!”
MOVING FROM ‘me space’ to ‘we space’
One major talking point has been ‘Zoom fatigue’ and the excess time being spent in front of screens. Whitney says 100,000 people have joined Accenture since the lockdown began, who have never even been into an office; bringing those people into the organisation effectively is a real concern.
Accenture has been developing behavioural ideas, like never scheduling formal online meetings on Fridays and experimenting with various online collaboration technologies, but Whitney admits it is difficult to make people feel part of the organisation. One major point that is missing for graduates joining the company is the ability to meet people and build networks. For this reason, they are championing mentorship programmes, encouraging people to participate in online knowledge exchanges, and dramatically increasing training. “I think the designs of our space will change in the future,” adds Whitney. “We’re moving from what we would describe as ‘me space’ to ‘we space’, to ‘us space’.”
This is a really exciting time, because there’s a lot of opportunity for new things to evolve and creative thinking to happen.
Schumacher says despite a constant focus on new hires, the reality is, everyone is coming back to a new experience. “It’s a complete evolution that’s going to happen over the next 6 to 24 months,” he states. “This is a really exciting time, because there’s a lot of opportunity for new things to evolve and creative thinking to happen.”
Schumacher also reinforces the importance of flexibility. Microsoft are continually thinking about whether they’re delivering the right space, in a manner that it can be evolved quickly and easily.
Bainbridge can see a situation where younger employees want to come in on Thursdays and Fridays to spend time in the city after work, while senior staff prefer to stay at home, while Dixon highlights an altered environment where all offices – even the CEO’s – are available as bookable rooms. “Culture is changing… the very fact that you see it from the top, I think it’s more appealing to the rest,” she expands.
Davies then brings the conversation back to health and wellness, wondering how the panel are trying to mitigate the intensity of the screen.
‘ZOOM FATIGUE’: Mitigating excess screen time
Bastiani says Mastercard, like Accenture, schedules meeting-free days, while from the 24th of May they will go to summer hours, with Friday afternoons off. “Organisations have recognised that it’s all a bit tiring for everyone and they are responding… but there is no magic wand to make it better,” she states.
Bastiani emphasises the need to talk about operations and FM, saying we should never underestimate the management involved in ensuring the smooth day-to-day running of the business. She suggests looking at how sales teams operate, because they have been working flexibly and cohesively as a team for a long time.
Huber agrees, saying Salesforce is now figuring out the teams that usually work together and what their team agreements are, but notes that it will take time for mindsets to change. He returns to the point about Zoom fatigue, pointing out that a survey of their employees showed that, interestingly, they are actually more productive at home, although he acknowledges that Salesforce started surveying pretty early and the curve is now flattening.
That’s probably the challenge for the future: to make use of this higher productivity, depending on the way you work, but still retaining the culture and bringing people together
He believes this makes sense because people can focus on their tasks without having to relocate for meetings, but this also contributes to fatigue, so cannot continue indefinitely.
“That’s probably the challenge for the future: to make use of this higher productivity, depending on the way you work, but still retaining the culture and bringing people together,” he concludes.
GSK has also reached this peak and Rentzos says it will be important to establish protocols that accommodate those constantly ‘on’ at their desks, and those who move between locations interacting with people. GSK is following a similar plan to Salesforce, focusing on how teams function together and having discussions with team leaders and managers about how they want their teams to work.
Dixon says Standard Chartered has also gone through the process of surveying staff and looking first at productivity, then expression of interest, and have now released applications, so people have to apply for their preferred type of work, including hybrid working options. “What we’ve seen is, 65% want to work from home, versus the 80% we saw at the start of the pandemic,” she reveals. Bastiani, meanwhile rounds off the discussion by saying that she believes employees are now much more honest about how they are feeling, which can only be good for the real estate industry and should be leveraged.
Office culture and human connections are essential components of daily life, and this has been borne out over the course of the pandemic as more and more people express a desire to return to the office.
Culture is changing, with more of a focus being directed towards experience, hybrid working, and flexibility, mirroring a shift towards people as the prize asset, rather than buildings.
There will be a complete and ongoing evolution in the workplace as people return to the office. While this will be challenging, it will also create a wealth of creative opportunities.
One of the key challenges for the future will be to maximise the increased productivity possible when working from home, while retaining office culture and human connections and avoiding screen fatigue.
This discussion was hosted by tp bennett, leading architecture, interior design & planning practice; designing innovative and practical solutions that withstand the test of time.
P.s. Join our global peer group of progressive occupiers for OCCUPEERS Virtual, taking place on 20 July. Find out more here.