In a quiet recent conversation with one of our members whose job it is to advise major real estate owners on how they should shape their investments to meet future demand, we got a taste of how the world might be changing irrevocably. Or at the very least speeding up on its trajectory.
Clive Dale had sent a minor query in an email, but when we saw his company name Bioom, described as precinct activation and flexible workplace consultant, we couldn’t resist doing our habitual periodic dive into selected parts of the ether. What were his clients telling him? What is he telling them? Has Covid actually changed things?
Dale’s views are measured and considered. His clients expect him to produce high quality work, derived from wide reading and deep and broad thinking. He’s creative.
In “actual work”, he notes, he does no more than around six hours because if it’s more then he’s not really “investing in the way my clients need and expect.
“I can’t be that person churning through ‘to do’ lists,” he says. Mmm already we’re interested.
Supermarket cashiers, on the other hand, are paid to put through as many customers as possible and their performance is judged on that basis. Journalists and media? They’re expected to do both: produce skilled creative work, at the speed of a Woolies cashier! Ouch…
Most people in challenging work, he says, might have two or three days in a row of unproductive work and generally that’s fine; the business can carry them. And we’ve heard from an entirely different source that some people confess to watching an entire Netflix series while at work.
(Wow. That hurts even more.)
For most people in the knowledge economy, we suspect that pre-Covid normal working life was closer to the media industry than anywhere else. Covid, though, has shaken up a lot of the thinking about how we work.
Dale says it’s going to be a “major shaper” of how we consume real estate. Not so much in relation to disease containment. That will pass, he says.
Nope, what is more important is what we’ve learnt about ourselves as individuals and organisations. In particular, new ways of being efficient and productive, and how to meet the needs of organisations.
It takes 66 days to establish new patterns
Dale says it takes 66 days to establish new patterns. For most people that threshold has come and gone.
In the past if people worked occasionally from home they might have wasted time, been distracted, taken the dog for a walk, instead of knuckling down.
Under this prolonged work at home regime many people have learnt new capabilities. They’ve learnt to concentrate, produce good work and do it in less time.
Cutting the commute is itself a huge productivity gain, or a personal gain for some. They’re saying, “this is my new life”.
One thing Dale has noticed is that people have become a lot more thoughtful and strategic in the past few months.
Previously, “people were just charging through”, caught up in meetings all day then having to work like mad to catch up with deliverables, with no time or space for ideas to “flash into their head”.
Covid, he says, “has helped creative workers and knowledge solutions providers, which I think we all are, to bring another part of us to the fore. Which makes us a smarter nation. That time has got to come from somewhere – is it coming from a commute or a meeting?”
Now to the new old normal as some employers are forcing people back to work full time
To be deprived of that new-found freedom, and the sense of feeling more productive and in control, will be very difficult for some.
Dale says that if it’s true that the best corporates are focused on attracting and retaining the best talent, then to deprive people of those options will be counter-productive.
“If it’s true, it also means we are less processed oriented and more focused around identifying the problem and delivering solutions, then we need to think about what’s the best environment to support those objectives.”
Some people, of course, thrive on the stimulation of social engagement.
But with this inevitably more thinly populated workplace, how will the real estate investment trusts survive? Will REITS be cactus?
No, he says. “They will survive.”
But they will need to change.
If employers are telling staff they need to be back in their office – and staff are not keen to do this – “that’s a huge threat to landlords”. Over time, occupancy will fall, and so will demand.
Those who have been told to come back full time will feel grief, he says. It will be hard to square with the glimpse of how life can be different, better.
It will be up to office owners to make offices attractive, compelling places to be. They will need to “woo people back to their buildings”.
Foyers will need to be lovely, with a variety of seating. There will need to be more interactivity, with social groups formed across floors and neighbouring buildings, perhaps a lunchtime run group, or other community activity. Landlords will have to facilitate this.
Retail shops will need to change most
But Dale says that none of this is different to the trajectory that was already established. All Covid has done is bring forward the inevitable.
For instance, it was inevitable that large shopping centres would need to restructure.
Among the changes is that coworking will become a natural fit with shopping centres and some, such as Westfield at Warringah Mall in Sydney’s northern beaches, has already introduced event and meeting spaces.
Chadstone Shopping Centre already has a successful operation in its spaces through the Waterman office space group.
Some of his retail clients will soon follow, Dale says. And it makes sense: people shop where they work.
These vast investments of resources will need to be better utilised; it makes little sense for them to be largely devoid of customers for most of the working week.
It would be good to see the vast car parks and empty air space better utilised as well, we say.
Perhaps to be more like original town centres – the vibrant eclectic marketplaces that were always the beating heart of any community.
But is it possible to create that organic vibrancy given the single iron fisted ownership model common to most shopping centres?
Hard to say.
Dale has the kind of eclectic background himself that makes him ideal as an observer of human behaviour and threader of dots.
He left school at the end of year 11, went back to university later, studying the arts (please note PM Scott Morrison) including sociology and philosophy, moving into public relations, political advisory, lobbying for a telco, corporate strategic adviser and property developer.
It’s probably the perfect background for the knowledge worker, and almost impossible to craft as a set of career steps.
A view from Nina James
Investa’s general manager corporate sustainability, Nina James, says she’s been enjoying work from home.
“Some people will want to go back but it’s given us all the knowledge of what it’s like to work away. And for some it’s been brilliant and for others not so good.”
James says she understands the future of work is important and that it’s important to understand the “nuance” of various characteristics of people.
For instance, there is the drive to belong and feel part of a tribe. “I don’t think that is going to change.
“Then there’s the introverts who’ve just indulged themselves in the last couple of months.
“I found it really interesting to see who bolted back into the office and who took their time. I’m naturally an introvert who managed to find out how to be extroverted when I needed to.”
A lot of James’ work is strategy and not even high-quality noise cancelling headphones can yield the same quality concentration time as at home. Especially if you’ve missed out on bagging a quiet room in the office for a few hours.
“On the other hand, sustainability is about influencing other people and I can’t do that at home,” she says.
Three days in the office and two at home are perfect, she says, and James has negotiated this long term for herself.