smarten spaces round table panel oct 2020

Back to work to a dynamic workplace | Smarten Spaces roundtable

Smarten Spaces Logo 01In this special PlaceTech session, in association with workspace management solution Smarten Spaces, an expert panel of leading developers and occupiers shared valuable insights into how they are tackling the issues facing changing workforces.

WATCH BACK: See the video of the discussion 


  • Jacinda Lofland, director of strategy and innovation, Nuveen
  • Annie Rinker, director of operations in the office of innovation, Hines
  • Mary Curtiss, global head of sustainability, renewable energy and environment, health and safety programs, HP
  • Dinesh Malkani, founder and CEO, Smarten Spaces
  • Paul Unger, editor, PlaceTech, chair

Where are we up to with companies returning globally? Are landlords being proactive with changing spaces?

Dinesh Malkani | Manufacturing bases within client companies moved faster than offices, in contact tracing, dividing spaces for sanitisation and partial closing if necessary – whatever it took for those people retuning to the workplace to feel comfortable.

While some countries still only have 10-15% of people back at any one time, we can learn more from countries further along in the process: businesses are dealing with having half of their seats removed by social distancing: they’re thinking about desk management tech, sensors, check-ins, especially in Asia and the US. Across every deployment we’ve done, we’re finding that it’s an opportunity to think of your future workforce, managing cost, and creating a flexible workspace.

Mary Curtiss: We have 20m sq ft of offices, mostly owned assets, and we’ve done a lot of due diligence on the next wave, which sites are sensitive. In a new age of working, how do we leverage spaces for collaboration? We’re looking at drop-in space, ad hoc options. We want to understand what the experience will be, how the platform looks, how can we make it consistent across sites across the world. How effective is the space, and how do we track it – I’m looking to landlords to help me understand this.

Annie Rinker: Hines’ office of innovation was founded three years ago to dig deeper into all of this, and agility is key both from the customer side and the internal side. At the start of the pandemic, we looked closely at movements, access and continued wellness promotion, as we looked to encourage clients back. We have two co-working locations that essentially act as R&D tools: there are 150 sensors in our Houston co-working space, so that is informing us on how this type of space is used.

Jacinda Lofland: When I think of the future of offices, the omnichannel office is what I think of: taking on what Amazon has done so successfully with retail in providing a seamless experience online and offline. There are three foundational components: hardware and building infrastructure; software – a building’s systems, tenant engagement apps and so on; and enterprise software – what people choose to use for calendar, mail, file-sharing. The integration of these will produce the best opportunity for true flexibility, taking in all those elements such as room reservation, syncing devices, visibility in collaboration, automatic emails.

Dinesh Malkani Smarten Spaces

Dinesh Malkani, Smarten Spaces

And how are occupiers changing?

Rinker: Whether changes stick varies between industry, and each end-user within it. I do think we’ll see a flight to higher quality product. Real estate is flexing to meet what customers want – standard in other industries, but not so in an industry where capital markets decide what gets built. Now the money will demand higher calibre assets with WELL features, access to amenity and outdoor space. It’s a fascinating time, with EQ-based not IQ-based workforces able to lead change. People will have options going forward, and they see that now.

Curtiss: We’ve been dealing with remotely managing dispersed teams for a long time, and collaboration and its tools are always the main challenge, sometimes people just have to be on the same site. We were always traditional in assigning desks and so on, but we’re definitely not going back to that. Scheduling and reservation systems, understanding how people work are super-important to us now.

Having a portfolio you can adapt quickly, as to the information you receive, will be key. We’re already employing a lot of tech, analytics, sensors; what’s turning on its head is this going more granular, and going campus-wide.

Rinker: We’re dependent on customers to help us, along with the information we gather from our co-working spaces. We want to create a dashboard for all of those metrics, in a perfect world we’d leverage all of that info to present to our clients as an added-value thing.

What’s the progress of tenant engagement platforms been like? And ultimately, who should pay for all this?

Malkani: Providing a product as a developer has to be about experience as well as a building and as we advance with flexible and fixed spaces, employees can’t feel as if they’re being punished for being in a flexible area. One area Covid has changed things is that it’s got everybody used to getting everything through apps. Property companies seem willing to spend on this area to get it right. From an occupier’s viewpoint, it might be ‘I’m never getting my full workforce back, so can I create a flex space, or an innovation centre?’

Lofland: Tenants want a go-to place for all their needs. Our strategy has been towards getting to a place with a ton of stuff in the back end, so we can give tenants autonomy over systems, but to have the front end consistent, so there’s no info overload, or the need to go to five different apps. We have a list of 25 engagement areas, and that requires a lot of engineering time. The process alone opens up communications between us and building users.

Annie Rinker Hines

Annie Rinker, Hines

Curtiss: Everyone tries to measure productivity, but how do you put a price on it? When we think about space optimisation and energy – it’s an easy business case. Implementation and integration of this stuff is hard – our pilot alone took a year, factoring in things like cyber-security approvals. It’s challenging, but this is a good time to start the process. Interoperability is important, and some companies still seem to be surprised by how long approvals can take.

Where is information coming from?

Rinker: The old-fashioned conversation is still something we rely on for research. There are differences in different territories: in Shanghai, for example, there’s much more sensor data available than in the US. We have many conversations with customers and portfolio teams, what do they want, how can we act as a partner rather than low-touch service provider? The winning landlords will be those who release that contact is everything: within the building and with global portfolio managers alike. A switched-on portfolio head can tell us more in a 30-minute call than we get from three months of sensor data.

Will the rise of flexible, or co-working space wipe out smaller deals on traditional lease terms?

Rinker: No, but the leasing process for this part of the market must evolve quickly to offer short-form leases, so people with a 5,000 sq ft requirement don’t have to go through the same process as someone with 50,000 sq ft. The product needs to be brought directly to the customer, spec suites need to come with services in a package, people need to be able to move in quickly and frictionlessly.

Lofland: The first question has to be ‘how long do you want it for?’ There is still a case for long-term leases at that size, especially thinking about how they want the space managed.

Is 2020 a landmark year for tech within asset management? Is ROI proof still a challenge?

Lofland: The consumerisation of real estate is a very real thing: post-Covid, people need to be motivated every day they come in, and establishing forums that can reconnect asset management with what users of the building are saying is huge. It means there’s data behind decisions, not a room of people guessing. As far as ROI goes, a lot of proof is indirect right now, so attraction and retention figures are as important as any.

Leaning more heavily on AI will make life easier for people, in practical areas such as working out optimised floorplans for socially distanced seating.

Malkani: Space management has to be the area you maximise what you get out of the asset ad make use of it frictionless. From a tech standpoint, at some point, people have to move beyond sensors to AI: that’s when the true magic happens.

Curtiss: It is getting to the hard data on space that’s the challenge: it’s easy on the utilities side.

Rinker: It depends where you are in the R&D phase. We tend not to look ROI on initial research. At the end of the day, efficiency is not only on building side but the people side: smart spaces is in its Infancy as an industry.

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