New workplace strategies for increasing flexibility

CBRE and WeWork share what companies are concerned with and how they’re adjusting to the new workplace

In a recent webinar hosted by WeWork, CBRE and WeWork sat down to discuss how companies are adapting their workplace strategies amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sidharth Dhawan, director of agile real estate at CBRE APAC, joined Liz Burow, vice president of enterprise solutions at WeWork, for a talk moderated by Alex Shoer, director of strategy at WeWork. Here are excerpts from their conversation:

What’s the most urgent inquiry you’re getting from real estate folks?

Dhawan (CBRE): The most important question is around employee health and safety. Occupiers want to ensure their employees are being taken care of. They also want to know about employee productivity within the new normal, to make sure that employees have the right environments.

Burow (WeWork): There are very tactical and practical questions in the short term: What’s the operations plan? What’s the new cleaning protocol, and what are the PPE (personal protective equipment) standards?

This may be why you see a lot of companies extending the work from home policy, because they’re just not confident yet. They are trying to think through reducing their footprint and being the most productive by minimizing the in-person experience. Companies are in an exploration phase and soon they are going to start making decisions and acting on those strategies and seeing what works and what doesn’t work for employees.

Dhawan (CBRE): We’re seeing a lot of teams starting with separating employees into those who should be working from home, those who could be flexible, and those on the front lines. The way they’re doing this is through empowered crisis management stakeholders and immediate research. How do we adopt a phased approach until 60 to 70 percent of our employees are going into the office?

What are your thoughts on building trust with employees returning to the office?

Burow (WeWork): I’ve seen great uses of trying to create human connection and tell human stories. A lot of people are ruminating and can’t get out their fear and worry. Once you see other regions opening up and hear their stories, the in-person element of working seems within reach. It helps people imagine themselves in the same situation even if they’re currently stuck at home.

To businesses, I would say: Communicate to employees. Make it visual and narrative so people can imagine themselves being there and feeling safe. 

WeWork Coda in Atlanta, GA.

In the short term, working from home seems fine, but I think the most mature companies are saying long term, we need to be really aware that humans are social creatures. We thrive when we feel like we’re part of a community. Employees are very motivated when they are connected to the mission and purpose of a company, when they come together to have collaborative and communal moments.

WeWork has community teams focused on this. They are doing their best to bring their communities together by doing virtual events and virtual happy hours, even when teams are at home, and I think that’s helping members stay connected to the larger community.

Dhawan (CBRE): When it comes to building trust with employees, we are seeing three lines of defense in office real estate. First, government institutions are providing mandatory guidelines around the minimum requirements for workplaces to operate safely, such as social distancing measures. Next, landlords can be viewed as the “micro mayor” of a building and are expected to take care of health and safety needs. And finally, the occupiers themselves are undertaking new policies to keep their employees safe. Those include increasing the frequency of cleaning, and new furniture layouts for the office.

CBRE has produced various reports and viewpoints that address occupier and landlord strategies in light of COVID-19.

Burow (WeWork): Part of establishing trust is asking employees what they think. We want to stay on top of the data to track this, which may involve quantitative surveys, observational studies, and in-person qualitative data collection. Once employees return to work, how are they behaving? What are blind spots we missed, or what’s working well? These questions will certainly help us continue to understand what the workplace experience will look like.

What we can do now is decide what information we want to collect, create hypotheses around what we want to learn, and make sure we have research initiatives that are tracking and feeding insights back into solutions and offerings we can provide. Taking that a step further and communicating these learnings to employees and explaining shifts in the strategy—that transparency goes a long way.

What’s your view on the hub-and-spoke approach? How can companies take steps to establish this?

Dhawan (CBRE): What we’ve started to see in APAC are “core and flex strategies.” Occupiers are looking at buildings that have both permanent and flex space solutions in the same asset. This way, occupiers can combine core, long-term leases with the ability to flex additional seats up and down with headcount needs. Buildings that have a bit of flex are showing up on the short list now, especially given the current concerns of businesses.

Occupiers and landlords are leveraging technology, including tenant engagement mobile apps, to stay connected. They are also providing a lot more communication to their employees, not just about the company but about the state or country they’re in.

Are landlords more interested in flex space for their own buildings? How are their motivations changing?

Dhawan (CBRE): Tenant centricity is a key differentiator for landlords today. Landlords are seeking wellness activations to help businesses keep their employees engaged and healthy. Some landlords are also implementing technology like infrared temperature scanners and in-wall systems for lifts, keeping sanitization in mind. They’re reinforcing ventilation systems and increasing cleaning schedules, among other changes.

WeWork Coda in Atlanta, GA.

Burow (WeWork): Playbooks and standards are starting to emerge about the human experience in the workplace, and WeWork is keeping track of these around the world. Landlords are taking this very seriously and thinking this through. This pandemic is making people think radically differently about what it’s like to occupy a building. We have a lot of really interesting solutions out there right now.

What do you think about the decrease or increase in demand for space given factors like de-densification, work from home trends, and a slowing economy?

Dhawan (CBRE): We’re still in the first inning. Remote working will complement occupancy strategies; it will not replace them. There is still a place for headquarters and flexible space, in addition to having remote workforces.

Burow (WeWork): In the next six months, we think people will be experimental and try different models. We’ll see a return to certain ways of working that we had before, with the caveat that some people will opt to work from home more days of the week. We won’t lose the need for the in-person experience at work.

Dhawan (CBRE): People want optionality as far as spaces and contracts go. We’ve found that the economic value of flexibility is actually greater than the cost of a flexible lease. Occupiers want options and are often willing to pay a price for that agile environment. If they’re seeking third party space, they will want to add or decrease at short notice. In one word, you can summarize it as agility.

Thank you, Liz and Sid, for your time. Any final thoughts?

Burow (WeWork): It’s so nice to speak and discuss with a workplace strategy colleague. I would say: Pick up the phone and talk to colleagues at other companies, because sharing is really valuable. I really appreciate this conversation and all the conversations that are going on out there about this topic.

Dhawan (CBRE): It’s great to have conversations with someone who is passionate about the future of work. We have some easily accessible resources, including a COVID-19 resource center where we share our thoughts, perspectives, and research from all over the world on a daily basis. The other is an agile real estate knowledge hub where we publish thought leadership specific to agility. Let’s keep the conversation going!

Liz Burow is vice president of workplace strategy and enterprise solutions at WeWork, where she focuses on bringing research insights into the physical product, as well as aligning space, culture, and brand. She leads enterprise workplace strategy, which leverages anthropology, design thinking, data science, business, and architecture practices. Burow is an expert facilitator and educator. She received her Masters of Architecture at MIT, and writes and speaks often on the topics of creativity, innovation, design education, and the future of work. 

Sidharth Dhawan is regional head of agile real estate, Asia Pacific, at CBRE. He heads CBRE’s delivery of comprehensive agile real estate strategies for occupiers, investors, and flex space operators. Dhawan and his team also develop tools and resources that help deliver optimized portfolios for occupiers, and differentiated, higher yield assets for investor clients. He has a background in real estate development, investment, and tech.

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