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The future of CRE with Peter Van Emburgh

April 28, 2021
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Insights from Workplace Innovators

The future of CRE with Peter Van Emburgh

April 28, 2021
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As part of an ongoing webinar series, we talked to Peter Van Emburgh, the former Global Head of Corporate Real Estate at CBRE, about how a rather large portfolio is managing the safe return and reopening of offices, the management of those spaces and in particular what's working and what's not working.

During our conversation, Peter talked about the new workplace, what the office will look like long-term, and how vaccine availability will affect real estate strategy.

A few takeaways:

  • CBRE had been subscribing to a masks-in-motion approach to return to work. If you're at your desk and socially distant, you don't have to wear a mask. If you're in motion — you do. They also look at community health indicators to determine their approach to safety.
  • 93% of CBRE employees who have switched to flexible seating said they would not go back to an assigned, dedicated desk.
  • Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on real estate, Peter admits CBRE had historically not measured all that space as well as you might think.

You can watch Peter's entire conversation with our CEO, Andrew Farah, here. Below are the "crib notes" from the conversation for your convenience.

On the impact of COVID on CRE

Peter sees a renewed focus on the health of buildings.

"A majority of our clients, nearly all of them, are not giving up the office. I think if anything this pandemic has helped reinforce and prove the importance of place and the office."

If distance makes the heart grow fond, organizations have learned their employees are eager to come back. However, they want to return to an office changed for the better. Cleaner workstations and restrooms, sanitary PPE available throughout, and conference rooms with limited capacities.

The pandemic has acted as a change agent, spurring investment and implementation of new processes. Clients of CBRE have rapidly invested in workplace technologies to measure, monitor, sanitize, protect, and streamline the new workplace.

On the purpose of the office

Why does the office matter in the first place?

Functionally, the office serves as a venue for both the technology and the people employees need in order to do their work. There are many aspects of the workplaces that employees can’t replicate at home. That includes impromptu interactions with coworkers.

Long before the pandemic, CBRE invested heavily in a program called Workplace 360, in which they redesigned offices based on employee productivity and wellness. Workplace 360 offices feature huddle spaces, phone booths, standing desks, touch screen displays, remote-enable conference rooms, a concierge service, and much more. These offices marked a quantum leap forward at CBRE in terms of employee health and wellness, office efficiency, and retention.

“The fundamental principle of Workplace 360 was centered around employee choice. Giving our employees choice in where they wanted to do work.”

CBRE realized it matters greatly that team members have a sense of agency in the office. The days of clock-in-sit-still-clock-out are gone. People work differently; innovation happens on the fly. Peter emphasized just how successful this program was across CBRE’s entire portfolio.

Then when the pandemic hit, CBRE saw another opportunity to invest in their workplace strategy. How do we keep people safe? How do we create an environment that makes them want to come back?

On a hybrid workforce

CBRE has no intention of requiring that employees return to offices, but Peter sees it as an exciting challenge.

"I have to recognize that the office and the workplace compete against the convenience of working from home."

Working remotely removes daily stresses like commuting or packing lunches and replaces them with the opportunity to spend more time with family and pets, making coffee, wearing comfy clothes. In some ways, the office simply can’t compete. Although, in others, Peter sees the office as a place that invites collaboration and serendipitous innovation.

If the office welcomes and inspires employees, it becomes a tool for retention and growth. Key investments in workplace tech can enhance the office experience and attract teams back to sites around the world.

Ultimately, the commute would be worth it. At least sometimes.

Peter believes that maintaining a successful hybrid workforce means developing a comprehensive ecosystem of offices. Employees are looking for flexibility. While it’s unlikely most offices will return to pre-pandemic levels, there will be many people who do return. In fact, Van Emburgh thinks those numbers will be significantly higher than most people are currently predicting.

On the future of the office

Peter views the office as, historically, a place where work gets done. That's no longer the case. Work can get done from your home, a library ... a car.

But that doesn't mean the office is dead. He sees the post-pandemic era as an opportunity for workplace strategists to create comfortable, inspiring places where employees can take advantage of in-person teamwork.

“I envision the workplace to become a beehive and buzz of activity around a sense of coming together and collaborating to drive business performance.”

CBRE plans to lessen people density and give employees more space within the same footprint. Unassigned seating, no dedicated offices, huddle spaces, lounge areas, multi-purpose rooms, tools, outlets, and technology available everywhere. They are doubling down on workplace experience and wellbeing. Employees who choose to come back full or part time need to feel a sense of belonging, empowerment, and safety.

The future of the office depends on its ability to enable people, to keep them healthy, and to offer them a space to do their best work.

To hear more from Peter, watch the entire conversation here.

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