By Johnny Clemmons, LEED AP
The post-pandemic era, we are now fairly certain, will be about hybrid work. Beyond that, however, office building owners and operators have more questions than clear answers as they attempt to tailor their spaces and their portfolios to a new normal that today looks highly fluid. “The challenge for real estate portfolio managers is [determining] how much real estate [they] need to manage in this environment,” Usman Shuja, vice president and general manager for connected buildings at Honeywell International, said during a recent conference panel discussion of intelligent buildings and specifically, return-to-site trends. “Do I need what I already have? What are my needs in the future?”
An unprecedented lack of clarity around return-to-site dynamics does indeed make the work of rebalancing, reconfiguring and building an adequate level of flexibility into a commercial building portfolio especially complicated. In its weekly office building occupancy report from early July, Kastle Systems (using building security access data) found that the national average occupancy rate stood at 32.7%, up 0.7 percentage points from the week before. While occupancy rates approached 50% in cities like Dallas, they hovered below 20% in places like San Francisco. In New York City, the total share of office employees expected to return by the end of September 2021 is 62%, according to the Partnership for New York City. That’s 37% higher than estimates from back in March.
One thing is certain: It will take much more than gut instinct to make sense of these extremely variable and volatile signals. A combination of digital capabilities and data-derived intelligence will be key to making informed, on-target decisions about where, when and how to downsize, which leases to maintain and which to surrender, and how to reconfigure and optimize office space to meet occupants’ needs and priorities, while maintaining or even reducing cost-per-employee of spaces within a portfolio.
Let’s look at some of the capabilities that are proving particularly valuable in helping building owners and operators make those strategically critical decisions.
A data aggregation platform to collect and integrate disparate data. Problematic for facility owners and operators under “normal” circumstances, data fragmentation in today’s environment is a huge impediment to their ability to optimize their portfolios and make well-informed decisions based on changing hybrid working dynamics. “Not having all the data in one place…is creating a lot of challenges for facilities managers,” Shuja said during the recent panel discussion.
An end-to-end digital platform enables an organization to eliminate data silos, collect and aggregate data from various sources across the enterprise, from HR, security, finance, maintenance, building management, IoT-connected sensors, etc., then glean valuable insight from that data. Integrating IT and OT data from across the portfolio eliminates information opacity, providing a single source of truth for making decisions that drive the greatest value for an organization. A company could, for example, synthesize data from room booking, employee calendar, travel and security clearance apps to help determine how many lunches the cafeteria at a specific facility will need to serve on a given day.
Advanced analytics to produce actionable insight from fresh data. In a recent interview with AP, Brent Hyder, chief people officer for the software provider Salesforce, observed that Thursdays have become the busiest days at the company’s 100+ offices, the bulk of which have been turned into collaboration spaces with open seating and no dedicated offices. Since there’s little historical data on which to base major organization-wide decisions like these, companies today are actively collecting fresh office utilization data as they ramp up their return-to-site plans, and applying machine learning-based analytics tools to that data to develop models for how to flexibly and cost-effectively manage space amid wildly fluctuating utilization loads that might hit 90% one day and dip to 20% the next. Analytics approaches like this also enable an organization to define a new set of KPIs to track and make buy, sell and lease decisions.
The sooner an organization starts integrating its data, the sooner it can begin to train those models, define and measure its KPIs, and gain insight about the new normal based on what the analytics suggest.
Holistic management apps and tools. When the huge multinational conglomerate Siemens rolled out its “New Normal Working Model” about a year ago, with a plan to shift more than 140,000 employees at 125 locations in 43 countries to mobile working for two to three days each week, it also unveiled a bespoke app to support the effort. This is exactly the type of holistic, integrated approach that organizations need to succeed in the new world of hybrid work. By enabling employees to reserve a parking space, desk, room or even independent coworking space, and to wayfind and generally manage key aspects of their remote work experience, they empower their employees to succeed in the new normal. By tracking that reservation data alongside actual utilization data, information from employee calendars, employee travel, security clearance and other apps, organizations also can gain valuable insight to inform their asset-management decisions.
Experience management capabilities to gauge occupant satisfaction, expectations and needs. Prior to rolling out its remote work plan, Siemens surveyed its employees around the world to better understand their preferences and priorities. Then, a project team with employees from strategy, HR, and IT, and Siemens Real Estate, as well as representatives from the company’s various business lines, collaboratively developed the plan.
The more insight an organization can gain into the occupant/employee mindset about hybrid work, as well as into their experience with specific types of office spaces and with the company’s overall return-to-site plan, the better positioned it will be to shape — and continue to refine — a hybrid work environment that keeps employees productive, engaged, collaborative and of course, safe and healthy. Experience management (XM) tools can help in that regard, enabling occupants (via in-the-moment surveys and the like) to provide feedback about how they experienced a newly configured office space, what’s most important to them in their remote working experience, how that experience could be better supported, etc.
Ultimately, this employee experience data is one of many sources of insight that building owners and operators will need to tap in order to manage their workspaces and office portfolios more flexibly, efficiently and profitably in a new normal that is shaping up to be anything but normal.
Clemmons LEED AP, BD+C, is Global Vice President, Industry Head, and former Chief Engineer for the Engineering, Construction, & Operations division of SAP.