CONNECTING on a human level with the end user is the way the office sector will remain relevant as it undergoes the most radical change in decades.
So concluded CGA founder and managing director Chris Garthwaite as he wrapped up the first roundtable event to mark his organisation’s collaboration with RealService.
The event was the opening salvo in RealService and CGA’s series Revitalising Real Estate and the discussion revolved around the theme Reimagining the Office: The Customer’s Voice.
“The office is one of the last institutions which is now breaking down,” he said. “Covid is an accelerator, but a distraction. The office now can be a home, a coffee shop, it’s wherever the end user wants it to be.
“It’s the biggest change in 40 years and probably one of the last industries which is being fundamentally altered.”
RealService and fellow customer experience consultants CGA have launched a strategic partnership with the aim of giving clients the best of both worlds: RealService’s expertise in the property industry and CGA’s renowned knowledge of other sectors.
The launch event featured some of RealService’s valued clients and they were challenged by one of the industry’s biggest customers, Chris Richmond, senior head of real estate at PwC.
Those around the table impressed Richmond with their commitment to customer engagement although he said his personal experience was a patchy one.
“Maybe PwC are dealing with the wrong landlords,” he said, adding that while some had engaged with him during the pandemic, there had been little dialogue around a return to work.
David O’Sullivan, director of occupier and property services at Great Portland Estates, said his team had, if anything, over-communicated with occupiers.
“It’s disappointing to hear of Chris’s experience, because I can say with certainty our delivery of that type of response has been exemplary,” he said. “We went early, issuing a return to work playbook to advise occupiers. We have kept every one of our buildings open, we’ve communicated throughout the process and run occupier clinics.
“Moreover, it has been a highly-valued process that has really improved our relationships. It has been the one constant thing we have been able to talk to them about in the last year and it has really cemented our relationships.”
While Richmond was preaching to the converted an even bigger question remains: what is the office environment going to look like in the future?
PwC have announced they will be embracing flexible working with its chairman Kevin Ellis saying he hopes it will be “the norm rather than the exception” and that “we want our people to feel trusted and empowered”.
Its workers can now work from home for a couple of days a week and start as early or as late as they want, which could have major implications for the space PwC currently occupies.
RealService founder and managing director Howard Morgan, who facilitated the discussion, wondered if space should be priced by the day? “Surge pricing is prevalent in every other sector,” he said.
Paul Rostas, founder of Plus X, the coworking provider, said: “We’ve tried to develop our product in a different way; we used to work at our desks and have an away day to think differently, maybe now, we work at home at our desk and come into the office to think differently.
We haven’t really tried a hybrid model
“Maybe Monday is for one company, Tuesday we set it up differently for a different organisation. From a cost-efficiency point of view that’s appealing; we reconfigure the space as and when people need it, driven by what the customer wants.”
For Dan Lovatt, head of property management and build to rent at Transport for London, the problem is two-fold.
He said: “First there is a technical side – help me with PPE, signage etc but then it’s, ‘I’ve got this space, help me understand what I am going to do with it’. The second lockdown has been a lot harder on people and there is less of a desire to work from home.
“Presenteeism plays a part. We talk about a hybrid model but we’ve either all been in or all been out, we haven’t really tried a hybrid model.”
From his perspective outside the property industry, Chris Garthwaite said change was inevitable.
“I remember working for Kingfisher when the internet arrived. It’s the same here. Your customers will have access to anything they want, on their terms. The focus must be on considering what are you selling? Is it productivity? Flexibility? This is about brands selling environments and this is where it starts to become really interesting.”
*RealService and CGA would like to thank Dan Lovatt (TfL). Michelle Laramy (The Crown Estate), David O’Sullivan (Great Portland Estates), Paul Rostas (Plus X), Rowan Packer (Mapp) and Raj Rajput (Hines) for responding to Chris Richmond’s challenge and to Chris Richmond (PwC) for being the provocateur.
CX Conversations: Listen to Claire Middleton’s interview with Chris Richmond here.