Proptech to Keep the Talent Happy — and Coming to the Office

Experts at a recent Commercial Observer forum offer insights into what works to keep workers coming back

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The importance of in-office tenant experience held the floor during Commercial Observer’s latest event, “The Bottom Line: Proptech Reinventing the Workplace.” Conducted virtually on July 27, the forum coincided with CO’s Tech Insider Live series. As the third installment, the workplace-centric discussion highlighted ways in which both landlords and employers can attract and retain modern, evolving employees in a modern, evolving era. 

“COVID has really turned proptech into a tale of two cities,” said Sandy Jacolow, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Empire State Realty Trust (ESRT). Jacolow spoke to Commercial Observer Editor-in-Chief Max Gross, who moderated the forum’s opening event, “Welcome to the Office of the Future — Winning Top Talent with Creative Spaces.” 

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In referring to proptech as a tale of two cities, Jacolow clarified that the pandemic has had a dual effect on the built environment. On the more positive, progressive side, the pandemic catalyzed contactless services, which have increased building efficiency and safety, and led to new entry mechanisms. 

Yet staffing challenges, limited resources and a reduced in-person workforce have stymied other aspects of commercial real estate development, leaving plenty of momentum still to be harnessed. Meanwhile, blockchain, the metaverse and cryptocurrency remain in their early stages. These burgeoning phenomena have yet to be utilized to their full real estate potential, and indicate that proptech implementation is still in its experimental phase.

“When I think about it, the two years have led us to an inflection point where we’re really only limited by our creativity, our imagination,” Jacolow said. “And I think proptech, with where we are right now, has the ability to transform our industry and change how we work and how we live.” 

To best utilize currently realized proptech tools, Jacolow recommends landlords and developers identify specific problems. Understanding clientele, pricing and capital market demands that landlords, owners and managers put their heads together.

Yet solutions should be viable long term and not just smoke and mirrors-esque technologies. Companies that don’t consistently evolve and assess the best long-term digital tools won’t survive and may face consolidation accordingly. 

According to Jacolow, however, merging isn’t necessarily a negative. Rather, consolidation may allow for a synthesis of ideas and ultimately yield better products and a more united, sustainable and viable company. It is this aspect of sustainability that gave Jacolow pause. He referenced ESRT’s literal playbook: a guide to low-carbon retrofits that serves as a road map for designing and building climate resilient spaces. The playbook focuses on four pivotal areas: getting started, discovery of buildings, energy and carbon modeling, and economic and financial analysis. While a guideline, the book is not a one-and-done solution, but an evolving baseline that requires consistent review, analysis and tweaking based on emergent building conditions. 

However, no matter how buildings change, proptech can be harnessed to amenitize and further develop offices, likening the workplace to hospitality facilities. Panelists in the next event, “Aligning Workplace Strategies With Evolving Tenant Expectations,” outlined the ways in which proptech can enhance a building’s desirability and shift the focus to tenant experience. 

CO’s Andrew Coen moderated the conversation between AJ Greulich, director of workplace and real estate for the U.S. and Canada at Uber; Shelly Just, director of implementation at workplace experience software company HqO; Emre Sonmez, head of product at Density, a space measuring platform; and Peter Van Emburgh, senior vice president and global head of real estate for CBRE.

Greulich kicked off the discussion with what he referred to as a perceived counterintuitive stance on transportation. He noted that geographical access tops the criteria for a return-to-office strategy; because people commute to work from various directions and distances, taking an Uber is not always realistic. 

Employers must therefore find ways to earn the commute of their employees, said Just, noting that the pandemic propelled the real estate industry to adopt a more customer-centric approach. Landlords have increasingly prioritized meeting — and potentially exceeding — tenant expectations to remain competitive. 

“We recognize that we’re competing against the convenience of working from home,” Van Emburgh echoed. 

To remain contenders, firms must invest in the right workplace technology tools, while accounting for environmental considerations and climate-resilient building strategies. This multipronged approach corresponds to widespread but general tenant wants. 

Yet creating a game plan that works for one company is not one size fits all. Rather, the path an employer takes hinges on its talent pool, company culture and the nature of business. Some companies mandate set days in the office, for example, while others leave scheduling entirely up to their employees. These decisions overlap with a central question: 

“How do people vote with their feet?” Sonmez posed, noting that this mode of thought is a common metric for gauging how to best align tenant demands with company culture and identity.  

The theme of company culture reverberated throughout the next panel, “Bridging the Gaps in a Hybrid World.” Gross moderated the conversation with Lisa Bevacqua, executive vice president and director of asset management at developer Silverstein Properties; Ethan Chernofsky, vice president of marketing for location data company Placer.ai; Andrea Himmel, principal and chief investment officer at owner-operator Himmel + Meringoff Properties; and Chris James, senior vice president of business development for technology company Essensys.

The panelists agreed that company culture impacts whether tenants actually want to head to the office, though Bevacqua suggested that this desire differs generationally. A younger workforce, for instance, may prioritize in-person collaboration and mentorship opportunities. Older employees, however, may prefer to stay at home. Balancing the wants of all sides is therefore crucial for creating a harmonious, happy workforce.

“I think the problem with the debate about hybrid work is that it was always defined by extremes,” said Chernofsky. He noted that COVID prevented employees from going to the office whatsoever, whereas the culture prior to 2020 limited any semblance of flexibility and hybridity. Now that there’s opportunities for achieving a middle ground, small but significant changes bode well for the future.

In discussing company culture, Chernosky clarified that optimizing and amenitizing offices aren’t mere matters of organizing bean bag chairs and setting up pool tables. Rather, improving company culture requires treating employees professionally and respectfully — while offering previously taboo flexibility. While digital amenities have long-term potential, they should be employed strategically, with the end goal of talent retention.

Granted, bells and whistles aren’t without warrant. In strategizing how to best entice and retain tenants, Ben James, tenant amenities manager at real estate firm Adams & Company,  referenced tech campuses that pull out all the stops. As a panelist in the day’s last event“Tenant Experience That Actually Works: Adams & Co. Shares Their Strategy, Results and Learnings” — James spoke with moderator Elise Duchatel, strategic account manager of North America for tenant experience provider Equiem.

“I think even pre-pandemic, with Google, Facebook, WeWork, they kind of changed the dynamic of what is expected of a workplace experience,” James said. These companies are widely known for their flashy campuses, replete with cafeterias, gyms and collaboration spaces. 

Such indicators of tenant experience have evolved from being perceived as perks to must-haves, Duchatel said. 

Yet, as the previous panel alluded to, tenant experience isn’t merely about what happens within the built space. Rather, proptech should be harnessed to enhance tenant authority and connectivity — both in terms of how employees interact with their space and with one another. 

“I think the tenant experience is every aspect of their work life,” said James. “And I think that begins from day one, once they’ve signed on the dotted line.”

Anna Staropoli can be reached at astaropoli@commercialobserver.com