Last week in Chicago, cre.tech and MetaProp NYC presented a CRE.tech LIVE seminar about “Innovative and Productive Workplaces.” Hosted by JLL, the coffee-fueled event brought together some of the brightest workplace strategy experts to discuss the challenges and opportunities that come with today’s rapidly changing office technology.

Ed Nolan, JLL’s Managing Director of Workplace Strategy talked about how different disciplines are coming together to build the office of the future: “CRE leaders are being challenged to work with their HR and IT colleagues to figure out how to deliver the best experiences in the most efficient way.” And JLL should know, having recently completed a successful overhaul of its own corporate headquarters while documenting the process.

Flexible workplace

A recurring theme was how employees of all ages are being challenged to collaborate to create dynamic workplaces. Matt Abeles, Co-founder of BuiltWorlds Media said: “For the first time in our life we have four generations working together and the youngest generation is less concerned with money and more concerned with having empowerment, having a better work environment, and having a better work-life balance.”

Many of the speakers noted a decline in the trend of open office space including CBRE’s Brad Serot. “A lot of founders believe that if they create the environment — open bench seating and collaborative rooms — that they’ve done the work and that they can check the box. But it’s psychology and changing behavior that far outweighs just the environment that you’re in.” Brad explained that in his own office environment he is being offered multiple workspace options from remote workspace, to cafe space, to open space, to private space.

Gensler’s Nila R. Leiserowitz, added, “One reason I think Brad’s comfortable with the shift is that the company shows that they respect him and that he has choice where he wants to work. Choice shows respect and trust and helps retain talent. Through technology, choice and the right environment, employees can do their best and drive innovation and success for the company.”

With mobility, comes the need to be reliably connected to your co-workers and workplace services. The increasing use of smartphones as a personal business line and second computer means cellular connectivity is more important than ever. WIN Connectivity’s Andrew Maier, said: “Failing to meet this expectation can result in higher tenant turnover for landlords and higher employee churn for tenants, not to mention the significant revenue loss. Providing reliable connectivity solidifies occupant loyalty — and gives you a competitive edge against other buildings and workplaces.”

It’s more expensive to not do anything

We also learned that when it comes to workplace strategy, we have a long way to go and there’s a lot of money at stake. SiteReady’s Dylan McCrory said: “27% of companies don’t have a formal strategy around workplace technology. When you combine that with JLL’s research saying that the cost of deploying workplace technology during a buildout has increased from 7% of the budget to 25% of the budget, what you get out of that is 75% of companies out there are flying blindly. If a buildout costs $200 a square foot, that means $50 a square foot is not strategically accounted for.”

Managed by Q’s Allison Whalen said, “As corporations look for cost reductions and efficiencies, technology will be an important solution to managing workplace services.” She talked about technology-enabled on-demand services, which are already booming in the consumer sector, now being made available to commercial real estate operators. “From catering and food services to events management and health and wellness options, a technology-enabled platform and marketplace can enable companies to strategically scale their facility management needs based on their specific and ever-changing requirements.”

Tech and touch 

Another important theme was the human aspect of technology. Nila R. Leiserowitz reminded us that good design prioritizes “tech and touch” and serves the office worker. CannonDesign’s Tim Swanson added: “We’re spending a lot of time really sensifying spaces so that we understand how people exist.” But before we get to that, economic vitality, education, and health and wellbeing are of the utmost importance, “and then we layer technology over that.”

Because companies are so focused on the human aspect of the space, the metrics for how we quantify value has move beyond simple square footage calculations. Ed Nolan commented that almost every meeting about designing and leasing office space has an HR representative present. “Sick time, time to hire, and retention rates of a space are starting to get used along side dollars-per-square-foot.”

Space designers say that they spend almost half of their time talking about helping employees adjust to workplace change. The layout and technologies are changing so fast that they often see a pushback if there is no plan to instruct and teach the workers in a space how to use the new tech. Cushman and Wakefield’s Antonia Cardone said, “While technology is taking off, the user familiarity and the experience of using those tools in a sometimes pressure work environment is still behind where it needs to be. So we are having productivity slumps associated with getting these tools operating.”

The future office

Video conferencing, social networks and virtual office technology has removed traditional workplace boundaries for enhanced productivity, collaboration, and flexibility. By incorporating “smart office” technologies, companies are making the physical work environment intelligent and adaptable to company workflows.

In the future, customization will be seamless. Facial recognition software and smart IoT  (The Internet of Things) will be able to adjust rooms to the preferences of each employee. Building owners and corporate occupiers will have the ability to gather troves of information with sensors and IoT to help manage a building, right down to individual workspaces. From lighting, to HVAC, to access control, we will be able to monitor and fine-tune every system in our buildings and workplaces. And many of these technologies are already being used today.

All of the experts at CRE.tech LIVE agreed that technology by itself wont improve the workplace. The real gains will be seen in the way technology enables better communication and improved workflows. “Technology has always existed,” said Tim Swanson. “What we need to do is take those tools and put them in the hands of the people. How can we use these tools to be more creative and collaborative?”

In the coming days, we will share additional insights and videos from this CRE.tech LIVE seminar.

Travis Barrington

Travis BarringtonTravis Barrington is the Founder of cre.tech, a media and events startup focused on commercial real estate technology. He is also the Founder of High Rise Facilities, a resource for owners and managers of tall buildings. Travis lives in Southern California.