Daniel Holmes, Colliers’ Executive Managing Director for the Greater Toronto region, shares his insights on how the office – the physical space, its purpose and usage – may change post-pandemic, as well as how evolving work arrangements, technology and data will impact commercial real estate.
Q: How will the pandemic change the design of office towers? Could we finally see the end of open floor plans?
A: The pandemic and remote working have given rise to concerns and expectations that employers will need to take into account as employees return to the office. As such, both the purpose and the design of the office are critical considerations as organizations welcome their people back.
Colliers’ Global Workplace Advisory team conducted two global work-from-home surveys in 2020, the first in March and the second in September. The surveys covered 61 countries and collected over 2,400 responses. In December 2020, the team released a comparison of both surveys, illustrated in this infographic.
Based on these survey findings, while employees have been able to effectively work from home, there are certain advantages the office environment offers that remote working does not. Hence the answer to the question that has been posed throughout the pandemic: Does the office still have a purpose? However, as also evidenced by these survey results, employers need to offer more flexible work arrangements moving forward. While some people have worked in the office every day throughout the pandemic, others have worked from home. Given employees’ desire for a choice to work either remotely or at the office, employers need to implement different, effective and inclusive ways to interact with team members, so no matter where they are working, they feel connected, engaged and supported.
If we want to look at how office space may change, it could be that progressive employers will recognize the aspects of being in the office that their employees value. If employees are only going to the office to work on projects with their teams, employers need to provide more team space. If employees are going to the office for some peace and quiet that they cannot obtain at home, employers need to provide areas designated for focused, uninterrupted work. Access to an active office layout and the ability to accomplish tasks and objectives that are key to team success are reasons some employees will choose to come to the office, as they otherwise cannot achieve these goals as effectively while working from home.
From what I’ve seen in our own organization, for example, people will come to the office to be part of projects and pitches, participate in sprints, collaborate, attend meetings, socialize and connect with their peers face to face. In terms of office layout, I do not necessarily foresee the end of open floor plans; rather, I see the value of creating a more “activity-based” work environment that allows employees to focus, perform and collaborate optimally – and safely – when they are in the office.
Likewise, I anticipate the lingering effects of pandemic concerns to impact individual space allocation in offices. For the last decade, companies have been condensing the ratio of square footage to employee. Until workers’ concerns with physical distancing have eased, workspace allocation will be an essential consideration.
At the end of the day, if the work-from-home model is a competitive advantage for your organization, embrace it! If it is not, you need to find a safe, meaningful and supportive way to bring your teams back to the office. The question should not be “Are you productive while working from home?” Rather, it should be “Is the organization productive while you are working from home?” It all comes down to retaining and attracting top talent being the main driver of your real estate decisions.
Q: 2020 was the year of “the pivot” but how do changing work styles, new technologies and structural shifts impact hard assets like commercial real estate?
A: There will be a flight to quality for office space, which we have witnessed in every cycle and recovery our industry has undergone. The way I see it, if there is an opportunity for an organization to fulfill employees’ shifting requirements and expectations, uphold workforce health and well-being, as well as elevate its brand, all by relocating to a higher-quality asset for close to the same cost, it will make the move.
Aspects that make a building a high-quality asset are changing, driven by occupants’ health and safety concerns. Proper ventilation now tops the list of organizations’ must-haves to locate in a building. Landlords are exploring, if not already implementing, systems to improve air quality. While state-of-the-art HVAC, sustainability certifications and policies, and health and well-being programs have become increasingly important building features in the last several years, they will now be major expectations that will set buildings apart and play a large role in where employers choose to locate. Landlords that proactively equip and position their buildings to anticipate and address occupants’ needs and concerns will be ahead of the curve.
Social norms will change as a result of the behaviours and protocols we have all had to adopt and follow in the last year. Gone are the days of people touching fixtures and surfaces without a second thought. Touchless and voice-automated technology in common areas such as elevators, washrooms and lobbies will be more prevalent in office buildings. For example, workplace experience platform provider Lane offers solutions including touchless building and room access, mobile visitor management and resource booking, and web-based building operations – These options will help tailor the occupant experience to reflect societal shifts brought about by the pandemic.
Q: How are the industry's leading dealmakers leveraging technology to source, evaluate, and ultimately complete more transactions?
A: More than leveraging technology, leading advisors who have been able to adapt and succeed throughout this period have prioritized the humanity in the transactions they’ve handled. They are empathetic to what organizations are experiencing, are a reliable resource to their clients, and are committed to helping them solve their business challenges. When things move quickly and there’s a lot at stake, it can be easy to focus on the numbers and the deal. At the end of the day, it’s really the people that matter most. With a genuine desire to help and do the right thing, our Colliers advisors continue to have a solid client base and will only build from it as the climate further stabilizes.
On the technology side, our organization has relied heavily on MS Teams to connect, collaborate and engage, internally and with clients. We continue to leverage our CRM+ platform to stay on top of property and transaction information and market trends, and help our clients make the best decisions for their assets or organizations. We’ve kicked our digital-first approach into high gear with our business pursuits and marketing initiatives, maximizing our online tools and strategies, from virtual videos and tours to social media campaigns. By the same token, we are strengthening our National Tech Advisory capability, allowing us to elevate our expertise and offerings in this dynamic sector that has played such an integral role in business adaptability and continuity in this challenging time.
Q: Blockchain, AI and Big Data has been all over the news, but how is it actually being applied to the CRE industry today?
A: It’s no secret that CRE has been a lagger in technology innovation and development. Several of the ways we can use Blockchain, AI and Big Data to tell compelling stories have recently advanced from infancy stages to actual implementation. I’m passionate about technology and data, recognizing that we don’t know what we don’t know. But the exciting part is that exactly for this reason, we are seeing a massive push for PropTech.
At Colliers, we are investing significantly in our IT and data platforms. We have a robust research and data team that keeps us in the forefront of what’s transacting and what’s to come. With our PropTech partnerships and market intelligence capabilities, we are able to collect and present information in a way that really matters to our people and clients, so they can make sound business decisions. With our property database, we are able to use historical information to help our clients plan for the future.
And this is just the beginning. I personally can’t wait for CRE to get further ahead on the data track. It will only benefit our professionals and clients.
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