On Tuesday 5 May 2020 I joined Bisnow's webinar Occupier Engagement: Nice-to-have or Necessity? which brought together speakers from British Land, Deutsche Bank and Equiem. It was an insightful and focused 30 minute session, looking at how landlords and tenants can work together to streamline the return to the workplace, with a particular emphasis on the role of technology.

Here are my 5 takeaway points:

1. The return will be phased. With the need to maintain social distancing, businesses need to consider how they can get staff safely back into their workplaces, which have traditionally been based on hyper dense floor space ratios. Employers have a duty to the welfare of their staff and also a vested interest in avoiding a mass outbreak among their employees. Firms will have to think carefully about who benefits most from being in the office to fulfil their role - those for whom close collaboration has the biggest impact on productivity. It may be that a shift pattern and phased start times are part of the solution, but following lockdown many employees may need to continue working from home. 

2. The role of technology will be key. Social distancing in the workplace will be one of the main challenges faced by landlords and their occupiers. The use of technology will be needed to help make the workplace a non-contact environment. From IoT enabled sensors, to touch free access, proptech will have a leading role in getting us back into our offices. Can meeting room booking software be utilised to reserve a specific desk or even a cycle space, to help maintain social distancing? Can businesses arrange for an at desk click-and-collect lunch service, to mean staff can avoid unnecessary interactions? Whatever the challenge, technology is well suited to assist in finding solutions to avoid unwanted physical contact. 

3. Virtual community is here to stay. The rapid, unexpected and compulsory rise in homeworking has spawned a vast array of innovative ways for staff to socialise in the virtual space. From online pub quizzes, to Zoom bingo and cocktail hour over Skype, firms are getting creative and people seem to like it. Participation rates are reported to be up, even against traditional in-person social events. With homeworking now an established part of everyone's working routine, firms will have to maintain and grow their virtual communities. 

4. Less space, better space. What does the future look like for occupier demand for office space? Businesses are likely to seek to capitalise on homeworking as a way of controlling property costs. However, for every employee at home, you cannot simply get rid of their desk. We are likely to see a cultural shift towards less dense occupational ratios, even after social distancing has stopped being mandatory. Hot desking may also become a less popular choice, as health and hygiene become business priorities. Once businesses consider 'what is the office for?' we may see more floor area being given over to collaboration and project areas. As such, occupiers may take less space, but this will take time to work its way into the market, as lease events occur. 

5. How will landlord’s build confidence and bring joy into their buildings? The challenge for landlords of multi-tenanted buildings following lockdown will be how they implement strategies and work with their occupiers to give staff the confidence to return to their workplaces. Their answer to this question will be a key factor in the landlord and tenant relationship going forwards. However, landlords also need to consider how they make their buildings places people want to be: art, music, events? Could office space face the same challenges retail has been experiencing with the rise of on-line? Does the office need to become a 'destination'? 


Julian Barker, Head of Smart Places, British Land

Kathryn Harrison-Thomas, Managing Director, Deutsche Bank

Gabrielle McMillan, CEO, Equiem

Hosted by: Mike Phillips, UK Editor, Bisnow