James Shannon, Chief Product and Technology Officer at essensys, took part in a Bisnow webinar on the new world that awaits us as people return to the office after lockdown.

The session was introduced by Mike Phillips, UK editor of Bisnow, the moderator was Antony Slumbers, founder of antonyslumbers.com, and the other participants were Rachael Gursky, VP of customer experience and technology at Industrious, and Richard Croft, executive chairman of M7 Real Estate.

You can find a recording of the webinar here, but below is a summary of the issues discussed.

Flexibility is important

As companies plan their return to the office post-Covid, tenants are looking to switch from longer to shorter-term leases. But they are also interested in different types of space to serve different purposes. In the new world, people who need a “heads down” kind of day may well choose to work from home with no distractions. Conversely, going into the office makes sense if you want to collaborate and interact with others. Which means your office space must offer a more engaging experience to make the trip worthwhile.

Flexible office space has been with us for decades now. With distributed workforces becoming more common though, it’s natural that enterprises require less of the traditional space they used to lease. But if staff aren’t tied to the same desk every day, employers need to manage attendance carefully – so everyone doesn’t appear at the same site on the same day. What’s more, the technology enabling employees to work effectively has to work equally well for off-site and on-site employees.

Who is demanding more flexibility and what is it they want?

The organisations are diverse; many are knowledge-based rather than goods-based and there are a lot of SMEs, but we are increasingly seeing enterprise businesses too. Regional offices are becoming the new users of flex space. Companies are seeking a network solution, to help drive hybrid working; whilst they’re de-loading the corporate HQ, there’s a desire to retain a central, fixed space.

Traditional office environments still exist, but landlords are adapting. They are thinking about partnerships, not just leases, and asking how they can increase the attractiveness of their entire building, and even entire portfolios.

Remember that remote working and business travel have been around for a long time. Flexibility has been increasing since the 1990s. But working from home isn’t viable for a lot of people. And Zoom won’t replace physical meetings. In the end, we are social animals.

This has technology implications that extend beyond access control and room booking. How do people discover which workspaces are available or how busy they are? Companies first need visibility, then a platform on which to create a seamless experience. We have left the old world of command and control. People might use a different space each day, but the same issues of security, wayfinding, internet access, logins and so on still apply.

This brings complexity.

How do you negate complexity?

For its digital platform, Industrious relies on essensys’ Flex Services Platform. This provides them with a holistic approach to all the software and technology they need to simply and efficiently deliver in-building occupier experiences. However, they also have to consider non-technical points, such as norm-setting regarding kitchen etiquette, what happens when a meeting runs over and so on. The balance between dedicated and infrequent users can be tricky. That’s why so many flex operators employ people from hospitality and education to handle delicate situations.

What data do you need?

Utilisation and satisfaction are the first two things to measure, and Wi-Fi use is a useful proxy for occupancy. However, there is also a demand for more real-time data, to inform a range of considerations, from social distancing to cost control to environmental concerns (heat/light/power). Sensors, the Internet of Things, and access control paint a richer picture of what’s actually happening in the building.

How do landlords benchmark the experience they offer?

Ultimately, it depends on the building. You can provide anything that makes the office interesting, from beer taps to a library. In the end, though, it comes down to understanding what occupiers need and being able to adapt to meet their requirements. Technology plays a critical role in being able to provision space, services and amenities quickly and easily to keep pace with shifting market dynamics. Let’s not forget that landlords are asset managers – and they need to manage their assets! Again, enter technology. This changing market landscape is driving a more distributed working arrangement across the workforce. While the appeal of the office is still strong – or at least it should be. There is a risk to the long-distance, mass-transit commute, and megacities may lose out to regional cities, which are more affordable and manageable.

In the short term, Covid safety will be important, with the impetus coming more from employers than employees. Touchless technology means RFID cards are being replaced by smartphones. Tap to pay has accelerated hugely, which leads to other touchless applications, which in turn generate more data.

Technology also provides extraordinary opportunities to understand how space is used, while being mindful of privacy. It can also provide solutions to challenges such as empty offices on certain days of the week.

One last thing…

Engagement is key. Employees, tenants, operators and landlords all need to work together. Let’s make the office experience collaborative and fun.

As the bar is raised for people’s expectations, things get more complex. Our job is to make it feel simpler, even invisible.

The route to success is listen, understand, plan, iterate. The picture looks chaotic right now, but we are creatures of habit. Things will take a while to settle – and they won’t seem so scary in a few months’ time.

In the end, we should treat the evolution of the workplace like software development: it’s never finished.