Strategy & Operations » Real estate » The future of corporate real estate

For all the think-pieces and predictions, businesses don’t know exactly how the future of the workplace will look. It will vary day-to-day and sector-to-sector.

Hybrid working is looking to be the most popular option for many organisations and using this model, many companies have already moved back into their workplace post-pandemic. But part of the uncertainty lies in understanding what tasks can best be performed remotely and what should remain in the office. Handling of sensitive data for example should be done at the office unless the organisation has robust cybersecurity. Writing a report and other individually focused work however might be best done at home. Employees will need clarity over how their tasks and time are expected to be divided and this allows the organisation to manage workplace use.

Modelling the workplace

The easiest way to dictate workplace use might be to set days for teams or departments to be in the office. This can work well; it gives teams a chance to collaborate and makes daily footfall predictable. However, as workloads vary over the course of the month or year, the set days may not suit the specific tasks each team has. In addition, this approach limits inter-team networking and the sparks of creativity it can lead to.

Allowing people to work remotely, as and when they feel is appropriate, can throw up challenges. Daily fluctuations in footfall can make space management difficult. Corporate real estate (CRE) is by far one of the greatest costs for many organisations and retaining individual workstations for each employee for the rare day that the workplace is at capacity is a waste of space – a costly asset. Managing services and facilities can also be a challenge. In a time when green credentials are more important than ever, companies can’t expect to cater for a full workforce each day, only to discard huge amounts of leftovers on days when occupancy is low.

To address this issue, organisations are doing their own experiments; ‘pilot working labs’ or ‘living labs’ are areas in the workplace equipped with sensors to anonymously monitor how people are behaving. This might include how people are moving or what work they are doing on a specific day. These labs could be one room, a floor, or an entire building depending on the size of the company. This helps workplace managers to better demand for space and distribution of tasks. Using sensor data, organisations can model workplace use and implement data-led management. This allows for more efficient space use and the safe management of the workplace in a time when Covid is endemic in the population.

The data-driven workplace

The use of sensors in the workplace isn’t a novel idea. Smart buildings have been at the forefront of workplace management for some time. But this evolution is likely to have accelerated as a result of the pandemic. Occupancy sensors and workspace-booking software became vital in keeping people safe during the pandemic. Now, these technologies are being used to plan for the future of the workplace.

Desk-booking software allows companies to reduce their number of workstations while ensuring that employees won’t come into work only to find they have nowhere to sit. Colleagues can book spaces close to one another or search for spaces in agile workplaces that best suit that day’s work. Desk-booking is one of the simplest ways to manage workplace footfall, but it can be built upon and integrated with other software.

Combining this software with data analytics will provide an insight into workplace use over time. Understanding variation in footfall and the use of different types of space enables workplace managers to reassess how their space is designed. With fewer individual workstations, companies may find it an opportune time to redesign parts of the office. With people in the office less regularly, some organisations will want to facilitate as much networking and collaboration as possible, prioritising more communal and group workspaces.  This will be particularly important for organisations that take on interns or trainees who will benefit from informal training and networking as well as formal work.

These systems can also be combined with desk-specific tags such as QR codes. Employees can scan these codes to check in to and out of workstations. This adds a layer of accuracy to the desk-booking system as desks are not marked as unavailable if an employee doesn’t turn up or leaves early. Scanning these tags will also alert cleaning teams when a desk is no longer in use. This means that reactive cleaning can take place. An employee can sign out from a desk by scanning the QR code, marking it as in need of sanitising. A cleaning operative can attend to the desk, then scan it themselves, releasing it back into the pool of available desks.

Engaging employees

The new workplace is one that actively seeks to engage employees. Many sectors are suited to more traditional approaches to workplace use. Finance, among others, may benefit from ensuring continued high workplace usage. However, enforcing this without any buy-in from employees can create a backlash. Rather, employees must engage with their workforce to understand the needs and concerns that might have arisen over the past 18 months. Employees may be anxious about returning to public spaces or they may have adapted care duties to a commute-free lifestyle. Reintegrating into office life won’t be easy for everyone. Workplace managers must facilitate the process by clearly communicating the changes that have taken place since the beginning of the pandemic. Whether working hours have varied, workplace layouts now allow for social distancing or agile working, or enhanced cleaning is in place, these changes should be clear. Digital signage can be a great way to engage customers and ensure that information isn’t overlooked.

But whether you are communicating through signage, meetings, emails, or all of the above, it is also important to remember that this should be a dialogue. Changing the workplace can come at a great cost and if it doesn’t suit the workforce, that can be a wasted investment. Engaging with staff can happen both through voluntary feedback and by understanding workplace use through data analytics. Those who don’t offer feedback actively will still have an opportunity to ‘vote with their feet’ and do so without the company collecting any personal data.

Perhaps the best way to look at the workplace of the present and future is as an ecosystem, reliant not just on the individuals but also on their interactions and collaboration. Excellence in workplace design and management will think and understand the complexity of these systems and respond to it in a data-led but people-centred way.