In January of this year (what feels like 17 years ago), I wrote about the rise of remote work and how it would impact workplace technology over the next ten years. Since then, COVID happened, and the type of change upon which that prediction pivoted has since, as we all know, drastically accelerated due to the pandemic. As others in this industry have so eloquently put it, we’re now experiencing ten years of change in about six months.
As my colleagues Julie Whelan, Andrea Cross, and Sohin Chinoy wrote in a section titled “Fluid Workplace” within CBRE’s recently-released report The Age of Responsive Real Estate, this radical reimagining of the workplace had already begun in earnest before COVID-19 even entered our collective lexicon:
“The biggest change has been technology. And it has given “the office” a serious identity crisis. The physical environment used to serve as the place where workers engaged one another, carried out work process and stored the tools and files necessary to be productive. Technology has, in most ways, replaced the physical environment with a virtual one that can be accessed anywhere. It’s the differentiator that is providing that workplace flexibility. And because of that, tech is a much greater dependency for people today than a physical workplace.”
The implication speaks to a rapidly evolving arrangement for many employees. What used to be referred to as “Work From Home (WFH)” has pivoted to a more commonplace “Work From Anywhere (WFA)” style that permits the employee to choose their own setting, be it the office, home, or some other place that best suits them.
Shift in priority
This prediction started to prove true not even 60 days into this great remote work experiment. Within the first two months of most major corporations in the United States pushing their knowledge workers to remote work, several decided to make the move permanent. Bank of Montreal (BMO) afforded 80% of its global staff (approximately 36,000 employees) the option to adopt a hybrid schedule allowing for multiple days a week away from the office. Some companies took this a step further – Twitter, Siemens, and Nationwide Insurance have all publicly stated their employees can now work from home permanently, should they so choose, extending policies all had put in place to well beyond the end of the pandemic.
What we’ve started to hear from these enterprise occupiers is a key theme the January prediction promoted – they have now fully embraced a willingness for their staff to find the “right space for the right work at the right time.” In a strong departure from 2019 sentiment, the “right space” just so happens to not always anchor on the workplace itself. The last six months have given CRE leaders and their businesses a taste of WFA, and many are finding that it to be quite palatable.
The majority of the Fortune 100 clients with whom we’ve met this summer, however, have started expressing a universal theme around technology investment as they look to bring employees back to the physical workplace. The added challenge many of them now face is the complete loss of trust and confidence in the safety of the office. The workplace technology industry, CBRE included, responded quickly. By early June, these firms flooded channels like LinkedIn and Twitter with announcements of new products and features aimed at helping CRE safely and efficiently reopen. Also telling is the continued investment this summer by venture capital firms in technology startups like sensor providers VergeSense and Density, proving that the market places an even higher value on these solutions than they did before.
Technology as the bridge
As a result, companies now look directly to technology ranging from IoT sensors to track occupancy and social distancing to desk reservation platforms and CRE teams quickly move to unassigned seating as a bridge to help restore employee faith. For a lot of the forward-thinking digital leaders in corporate real estate, where they’ve requested funding over the last three years and been rejected, their respective executives are now mandating investment in digital workplace. What once was viewed as “optional” has now been given a hard, fast shove into “required.”
Similarly, we’re seeing a growing, strong emphasis on health and wellness incorporated into design and operation of the physical building. For those of us who have long championed the healthy building movement, inclusive of philosophies found in standards like WELL and Fitwel, the recent surge in attention of healthy indoor spaces has been exciting and vindicating. Facility technology has iterated accordingly, helping to bridge the chasm of occupant trust by incorporating more sensor-driven approaches to ventilation, UV cleaning of air, and a general shift to dynamic, anticipatory operation focused 100% on the needs of the occupant.
Lastly, in order to make the hybrid model work for all employees in the long run, we believe the broader umbrella of digital workplace technology must act as a bridge between physical workplace and general workspace. The solutions your company selects for collaboration and communication, now more than ever, absolutely must seamlessly and intuitively connect the WFA staff to the workplace and vice versa. An equity of functionality must make the remote experience just as productive than the in-person one, which has not always been the case. Especially now that your workplace will likely be viewed as a “destination,” it’s time to make the investment to ensure the on-site experience is as flexible as possible.
Drew DePriest leads Digital Solutions and Strategy at Host. Before CBRE, he headed Collaboration Services as part of the global CRE IT team at financial services firm Aon, led business development at workplace technology startup Comfy (acquired by Siemens) and spent 12 years in sales and operations at building-automation firm Automated Logic. Drew earned his MBA and MS in Finance from DePaul University, BS in Systems Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is credentialed as a WELL AP. In addition to spending time with his family, Drew also enjoys live music and movies starring the incomparable Matt Damon.