WELCOME to the third of our interviews in our CX Conversations series. Here, David O’Sullivan, director of occupier and property services at Great Portland Estates, emphasises the importance of gathering regular, independent feedback from customers.
He talks about how ‘over-communicating’ during the pandemic has improved the relationship between landlord and occupiers and emphasises the ‘people-focused’ nature of the business.
Oh, and don’t do what the banks do. Definitely don’t do what the banks do.
If you are a property company unconvinced as to the value of customer experience, please listen to our series of interviews with key figures from different sectors. We’ll be posting over the coming weeks and our interviewees include:
THE CUSTOMER. The head of real estate for PwC speaks stridently about the levels of service and engagement he expects as a major customer and he offers up a future of the office as ‘business theatre’.
THE ASSET MANAGER. The head of sustainability, Europe, for a global REIT talks about the importance of retention and reputation as key drivers for revenue.
THE LANDLORD. The director of occupier & property services for a major UK landlord explains the value of communicating with customers and how building relationships will serve them well in what are likely to be tough times following the pandemic.
1. The customer
This first interview is with Chris Richmond, senior head of real estate for PwC.
We asked him about the services he expects as an occupier, the role of managing agents and their preparedness for post-pandemic office life. Oh, and we also touched on the future of the office itself.
Next time, Kaj Bakker, head of sustainability (Europe) at Cromwell Property Group, will talk about being the middle-man, the asset manager serving two masters – occupiers and investors. It’s understanding occupiers, he says, which will drive retention, reputation and revenue.
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.
We can all see that the pandemic has accelerated some important working trends. There has been an increase in flexibility in terms of where and when people work. Automation of jobs has been pushed forward on the agenda with technology enabled working catapulted into our lives, and the horizon for robots replacing repetitive tasks and use of AI moving even closer.
At RealService, we have been talking with occupiers and observed that, although people who have been forced to work from home (WFH) by the pandemic have found that technology has enabled them to do that successfully, what is missing is the sociability and serendipity of the office. Companies are grappling with rethinking what the office is for. The working models based around most people spending most of their time office based has been shattered and forward thinking employers are going back to the drawing board and building a new model.
Whilst we are still in the midst of the pandemic, it is easy to look at the empty office space and conclude that people want to stay at home to work, and some studies, such as Leesman, show that people think they are more productive and are happy working from home. However, Professor Lynda Gratton, of London Business School points out that there are gaps that employers need to recognise and factor in. The office also provides opportunity for socialising, networking and creativity. These things are very difficult to do remotely. Bruce Daisley, author of The Joy of Work, and Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat, agrees that there are gaps that need to be filled when people are all at home, only meeting on Zoom. Those random, chance conversations after face to face meetings and informal brainstorms are valuable to organisations. As this plays out, companies are likely to find that they are missing these vital aspects of working life.
Research done during the Covid crisis says that, not only have people enjoyed working from home but, without the daily commute, they have been able to spend more time with their families and more time working. However, Lynda Gratton suggests that this has come at a price. Some feel isolated and unconnected and many are missing out on chance conversations and random meetings and connections which spawn creativity. It is essential to take on board that employees have their own, individual, experience of WFH and to understand what they are. No two WFH experiences are the same and so no single answer will suit everyone.
Bruce Daisley believes that the ‘Hotelification’ of office space will become the norm with companies forming team hubs that meet in the workspace together at pre agreed times. One thing we can all agree on is that to entice people back, the experience of being in the office needs to be better than being at home.
Another point that needs to be taken into account is ‘Zoom fatigue’. There is a limit to how much the brain can absorb, using this medium. We all need a social break now and again and some human interaction.
So how will businesses move forward?
One pointer for the future comes from Kevin Ellis, Chairman, PWC who on 20th October 2020 is quoted as saying
“From the messages I get from our people I know that many really value having the option to use an office, whether for a personal or business need. In the longer term it will be important to continue to ensure offices offer people something more than they can get at home, whether it’s working together, innovating or learning. I am sure I’m not alone in wanting this to be the case.”
But not all employers see things the same way and it’s our view that office life will not go back to where it was before the pandemic. Some organisations are already designating employees and long term homeworkers and this trend is likely to continue. Perhaps the term ‘office’ will become obsolete, in favour of ‘workplace’. Businesses will need to re draw what work looks like, and what and where the workplace is. They will need to identify aspects of job roles that can be done at home, and others that would benefit from having people together, at least some of the time. They will need to gather insight into how their employees are responding to the new world.
So as we go through this pandemic, and come out of it, as we surely will, and as future of work emerges, we need to remember that we are inherently social beings and business need to harness the value of social interaction in a way that gives us the best of both worlds. In all of this, one thing is still true – customer and employee experience is everything.
Does your organisation have the skills and insight it needs to navigate its way through this new world?
RealService, like many other businesses has had to pivot our services to meet the needs of our clients during the pandemic, and we have been helping them keep even closer to their end customers. For landlords, developers and managing agents, this means gaining more insight into the behaviours and emotional needs of employees and finding a way to be part of the solution not the problem.
If you’d like to discuss how you can think differently about the future of your office portfolio, contact:
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