8 "Return To Work" Perspectives from Real Estate Execs

There has been no shortage of hot takes on the future of offices over the last several weeks.

While there are certainly some insightful and thought-provoking ideas around what the company's workspace will look like “post-pandemic,” a majority of those aforementioned think pieces and prognostications are intentionally dramatic and wildly overblown.

Here at Knotel, we've been heads-down working with customers, local health authorities, and other key stakeholders as we devise our own playbook for safely returning to the workspace.

Some of those tactics will entail physical and structural changes to how workspaces are spatially configured. Other parts of the plan are less about the tangible space itself and more about the cultural, social, and logistical challenges required to ensure employees feel safe, comfortable, and productive.

We've also been spending time talking with influential Heads of Real Estate about their own plans for returning to the office. To help differentiate the signal from the noise, we've curated the best takes from leading real estate executives at JPMorgan, Salesforce, Uber, and more.

Learning From Asia

1) David Arena, JPMorgan Chase Global Head of Real Estate shared some insights on a recent CBRE webinar on how his company is developing a robust plan to safely welcome employees back to the office.

In addition to paying attention to lessons learned from Asia, the financial services giant is particularly focused on incorporating changes inside the office that focus on paths of travel.

This will include changes to layout and design intended to encourage traffic flow in one direction (not unlike hospitals) to reduce the number of collision points between employees. Design changes intended to facilitate this new traffic flow will include visual cues on floors, wall signage, and much more.

2) Cathy Marcus, the Global Chief Operating Officer and Head of US Equity for PGIM Real Estate also joined the CBRE call and noted that activity has resumed in Sydney, Germany, and France, while the company’s Shanghai office is open.

She also advised applying lessons from places like Singapore, which have seen an uptick in cases by re-opening too quickly. Marcus opined briefly on the privacy issues resulting from contact tracing that will likely need to be adjusted based on country and location.

“You have to realize that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution across the different sectors,” she concluded.

Spacing Is Key

3) Mike Huaco, Uber’s Head of Real Estate, joined our “Flex Forward” series last month to discuss how the ride-sharing giant is thinking about workspace and offices for the company’s global workforce.

“Uber’s offices, for example, could reopen at 20 percent capacity with employees sitting six feet apart,” the company’s real estate chief said.

He said opening would have a multi-day lag time because of the steps needed for employees to return, including taping an ‘X’ on every other desk, putting up signage about social distancing and hygiene, and stockpiling hand sanitizer.”

4) Cushman & Wakefield’s “6 Feet Office” project was started with the ambition to get the world safer and back at work sooner,” said Jeroen Lokerse, Cushman and Wakefield’s Netherlands chief. “We believe that a safe and healthy workplace is at the center of what’s next in business.”

Cushman is coming off of a massive effort to help 10,000+ organizations in China move nearly 1 million people back into offices. They’ve taken a collaborative approach and enlisted the expertise of health organizations, medical professionals, and local health authorities.

The central thesis of the initiative is to ensure proper spacing within an office to comply with 6-foot social distancing guidelines recommended by top health experts. The behavior is encouraged through spaces between desks but also visual cues and signals that are embedded throughout the office.

The end result is part working lab and part showroom for other companies eager for practical and real-world manifestations of new workplace configurations.

Don't Forget The Air

5) Scott Rechler, Chairman and CEO of RXR, has been a highly visible figure in the return to work conversation, having been selected by Governor Andrew Cuomo to join the elite task force — “New York Forward Re-Opening Advisory Board" — responsible for developing a plan to help the region safely re-open.

In a recent WSJ article on the topic, Rechler shared more specifics on what his company is doing to pandemic-proof RXR’s offices.

“Along with increased cleaning and upgraded air-filtration, RXR recommends: staggering arrival times, ensuring seats have “proper social spacing,” limiting or eliminating visitors and encouraging staffers to bring meals from home to avoid trips outside. RXR will be rolling out new technology to facilities, including air-quality sensors and temperature scanning devices in lobbies to detect if someone has a fever.”

6) Salesforce’s Head of Global Real Estate Elizabeth Pinkham recently shared a blog post titled “Safely Re-Opening Our Offices: The Salesforce Approach” that outlines some of the company’s plans to reopen 160 locations while supporting the health and safety of their 50,000 employees.

Not surprisingly, the company is planning to adopt a phased approach that prioritizes guidance from local health authorities and the CDC. What is unique to Salesforce is the company’s 6 guiding principles intended to help shape their decision-making on the complex and nuanced reopening process.

From creating a re-opening guideline matrix to building a strong supply chain to design changes and over-communicating, the plan appears comprehensive and spans both physical modifications as well as social and culture adjustments.

Pinkham also “expects new materials, like antimicrobial metals such as copper, brass and bronze to play a bigger role in designs going forward. And since the virus is airborne, they are working with building management teams to optimize core building systems, like airflow, to avoid contamination.”

Factoring In Flexibility

7) ServiceNow’s VP of Real Estate & Workplace Robert Teed is highly influential in commercial real estate circles and serves as President of the Northern California Chapter of Corenet Global.

In addition to all the tangible and physical workplace changes companies are preparing to make over the coming months, they’d be wise not to underestimate the importance of the psychological adjustment many of us will have to make when we eventually return to work.

“Returning to the office may be less about prepping the place and more about prepping the psyche,” he recently commented.

"Critical to success will be understanding the readiness to return across two tracks: 'workplace readiness' (the physical place) and 'workforce readiness' (the people). Of the two, 'workforce readiness'' — how ready, willing and able employees are to return to the office, and how adaptable and flexible employers are ready to be — will prove to be more complex."

8) Nasim Yalpani, Dropbox’s Head of Real Estate and Workplace Services, was generous enough to spare some time recently and join our CEO Amol Sarva for a candid conversation on what the company’s real estate footprint will look like post-pandemic.

Yalpani gave us a glimpse into her current real estate priorities and shared that her team was executing scenario analysis and problem-solving to determine the optimal approach to space management in this highly unpredictable and dynamic environment.

She also suggested that the checkerboarding and other solutions for promoting social distancing may be temporary and predicted the company would increasingly lean into a hybrid “hub and spoke” model that would give its employees more geographic flexibility.

These are just a few of the companies and leaders we’ll be keeping an eye on as we iterate and improve our “Return To Work” playbook for our customers and partners. For a sneak peek of the guide, email content@knotel.com.