PlaceTech Talks Offices | Preparing for a data-driven future

The Covid pandemic has sped up several trends in how we use and operate workspaces. But what do those trends look like in practice, and what can landlords do to stay on top of changing demands? How do you introduce tech into your workspace strategically without getting bogged down by data?


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Sponsored by Mallcomm and Drees & Sommer and chaired by Dan Hughes, founder of Alpha Property Insight, PlaceTech’s latest event explored some of these office trends – from flexibility to ESG and data – with experts who have first-hand experience in the industry.

Panel One

  • Allison English, deputy CEO, Leesman
  • Simon Schaefer, founder and CEO, Factory
  • James Pellatt, director of workplace & innovation, Great Portland Estates
  • James Rankin, head of research & insight, The Instant Group

Simon Schaefer said that tech businesses are leading the way in the future of the office: “It feels like there has always been that tendency of the technology companies to give a bit more flexibility on where people can work and how people can work – and it feels like Covid has just been an enormous turbo when it comes to that and accelerating this trend across everything that I see right now.

“I do think that the fixed desk is dead. Having a fixed position inside your office is no longer really required, and in order to accommodate that you will need technology to manage how people enter, exit, where they stay and when they stay at the office.”

Allison English added: “Actually needing to articulate and understand what people are going to use the space for is a relatively new phenomenon for a lot of organisations. Before, it was something that was a bit taken for granted, and it was a given that was you need an office.

“If leadership is embracing that flexibility and that mentality, and they’re offering that to employees, then I think you see that and feel that in the organisation.”

But organisations that want to embrace that mentality, she said, will have to start gathering data about what exactly people want or need – and how that has changed in the last year and a half.

“When people have been working from home, they’ve had control over that space. So if you thought you needed fresh air, you open the window. If you thought you needed more greenery around, then you ordered some plants or went to the store and bought some, whereas in the office, someone else is dictating that.”

The rush for data on how employees use offices should be driven by ‘actionable insight’, James Rankin said: “There’s limited value – no value really – in that data unless you’ve got a clear plan of how you’re going to take it and make changes based on that.

“The big thing for us is trying to move away from occupancy data to utilisation data, then making sure that the occupiers or the landlords can use that to make changes for continuing improvement.”

He said that sustainability is becoming a growing factor among investors, but added that the data in that area is still lacking: “We struggle on a regular basis when we’re looking at a building for a customer and we’re trying to get ESG-type figures out.

“And we really struggle particularly if they’re taking on smaller chunks of that space. You might be able to get the total building figures, but then to try and get that down by maybe a floor or even part of the floor plate is still very, very difficult – I won’t say impossible, but challenging.”

From a landlord’s perspective, James Pellatt said: “People’s use of technology has accelerated so people are much more open-minded to the deployment of air quality sensors in their workspace than they ever were before. There were big concerns about data privacy before which seemed to have fallen down the scale slightly – unsurprisingly, maybe.

However, he said that the biggest gap in available industry data is around the performance of different building components, such as boilers: “The decisions that we need to make as real estate owners are based on much longer whole life carbon decisions, and that data is just not available.

How should the industry tackle that problem? The industry needs an organisation that encourages ESG data sharing, he said. “It is an industry body of people who collectively feel that membership of that group should be via an element of data sharing.

“That’s not necessarily sensitive data in terms of rents, who’s paid what, what yields, what the demand is – that’s separate. But to solve the climate crisis, that’s what needs to happen.”

Ultimately, occupiers will demand sustainable offices and the industry needs to be able to offer that. Pellatt said: “Any organisation, corporately, is looking at their building. Particularly if they’re in the service sector, that office footprint is pretty much their Scope 2 emissions. If they want to claim to be a net-zero carbon business, they’re going to have to occupy a building that is a net-zero carbon office.

“If you don’t provide that office, you’re not going to get there – and you only get there if you employ the technology to understand that.”

PT Offices Panel 2 Still

Panel 2

  • Iain Holden, CEO, TSK Group
  • Salla Lardot, user experience expert, Drees & Sommer
  • Taylor Wescoatt, general partner, Concrete Ventures
  • Bogdan Nicoara, founder, Bright Spaces

Salla Lardot said that hybrid working and the use of software were already on the agenda for some companies, but others are finally catching up. “Already we’ve been talking a lot about blending the physical and virtual workspace – which, of course, other companies and tech companies had to adapt to in a very rapid tempo the past 18 months. And I think the gap between tech companies and the rest is getting smaller.

“What’s interesting is also that there’s another very strong movement: social media and the impact of social media during the pandemic, and how that is introduced into the work and into the office life, for creating communities and for bringing people together – sort of like internal social media.”

“I started thinking about this blended situation, and you also become blended. All of a sudden, you’re not only virtually connected to people or face to face connected people. So you have two faces at the same time, you’re blended yourself. And this has an impact on your behaviour, and on what technology should offer you.”

Taylor Wescoatt said that businesses will be looking at multiple offices, and that comes with its own challenges, especially in smaller locations. “It’s not efficient to do build out for that 3,000 sq ft floor plate for a two- to three-year lease. So we’re seeing companies like Kit Offices really get traction, where they help smaller clients figure out what they need using a heavily digitally enabled process around acquisition, design and fit-out and then front and back of house management.

“So you get your culture, you get your central location, it’s not a WeWork, you’re only in a two- to three-year lease. And you don’t have to source property managers and all that stuff happens digitally, which is really nice.”

He added that in the rush to measure how people use offices, there has been a significant oversight: “James Seppala from Blackstone got up on stage two years ago and said: ‘If you have data about how users your occupiers feel about being in your building consistently over several years, we’ll just pay you more for your building. It’s that simple.’

“And I don’t see anybody selling that product yet. I’m shocked. I don’t hear anybody marketing that capability. There are thousands of tenant engagement apps out there that should be doing that. And yet, it’s not sunk in yet, which is strange.”

But deciding what is measured and what technology is deployed can be a challenge, Iain Holden said. “I think it’s very difficult to be able to pin a tangible return on investment to some of these things that we’re deploying, particularly as we return to workplaces after a period where they’ve been empty.

“If the technology is helping you to make decisions that improve your business performance and your employee experience, I think that’s a reasonable KPI to start to judge whether that is a worthwhile investment.

“I think there’s a huge tendency to follow fashion. I think the whole sensor technology thing for a start for a lot of these organisations was about doing what the other people were doing.

“I can remember a conversation with a property director of a global insurance company. They brought out sensor tech across all of their portfolio worldwide, and he basically said: ‘Be careful what you wish for. We’ve got more data than we know what to do with it.’ If you haven’t defined ‘what are you deploying the technology for’ beforehand, then be prepared to be disappointed.”

Bogdan Nicoara’s advice for landlords adopting tech was: “I would stay away from a purely customised solution, because the world of software-as-a-service is now growing. Just imagine what a SaaS company is actually looking at: creating the best possible solution and getting the monthly or yearly revenue from that solution for many years to come, whereas a custom software developer will look to develop your solution right away, and then probably switch to the next project.

“SaaS solutions are better than fully customised solutions, and also with a very high degree of integrating with other solutions so that you cover the data problem, so that you don’t have a lot of islands when it comes to your tech stack. But you have an entire continent working together to bring the best benefits for your company depending on the digital solution that you’re using.”

The next PlaceTech Talks event is on 25 November. Book your free place now

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