The corporate frontline in Real Estate

The corporate frontline in Real Estate
Published: 3 June 2020

Thankfully, over recent weeks, the attention has been allowed to shift from containment and survival (human and business), to looking ahead and easing towards preparations for a post-COVID world. Pivotal to those preparations is the community of HR Directors.  Never more poignant are these preparations than in the Real Estate sector – where the ‘new workplace’ is at the centre of much debate amongst property owners, developers, investors, consultants and agents. Those at the forefront of these business discussions and spending a lot of time considering the human impact and sentiment, are the HR Directors in Real Estate. Those who joined us in our latest virtual round table, focused on sharing their experiences to date and ideas for the next phase of colleagues returning to work.

A different workplace

Whatever the size of the business and however intricate, sophisticated and well established it might or might not be, everyone’s strategies are developing and changing daily as government guidelines are tweaked on a regular basis. Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be frustration around the unclear ’road map’ that had been provided by government and the lack of fundamental changes and detail around what’s next and when that may happen. In fact, the tone around the ‘table’ was that, with the huge challenge ahead for preparing workplaces, the time to work out strategies and policies was needed and very welcome.

Those with offices across the UK seemed to be focusing on preparing their London HQs first, whilst looking to open their national network in stages. All were resigned to the fact that, to act responsibly and adopt suitable COVID-19 precautions, they would be looking at only a proportion of employees returning to the office at one time. Simple suggestions such as those not needing human interaction as much as others i.e. finance departments and accounts, would continue to work from home for the foreseeable future.

Guidelines and detail around how an office might be set up and operate are now widespread as every consultancy looks to advise their clients, and every business looks to be safe and be prepared to get back to work as soon as possible. Already we have seen non-essential development sites return to operations and working well – the construction sector is increasingly back to work, albeit with a reduced number of workers.

Property Directors of corporations whose main workplace is an office, are excited. In our previous Property Director forum, they spoke of the changes that occurred in 72 hours that would have probably taken 10-15 years had it not been for the pandemic. Now there is a commitment to, and need for, collaborative space. It’s about human contact and interaction rather than lines of desks for people to sit and work behind – that can be done at home or elsewhere.

Getting people back to the office

However, and as pointed out by the HR Directors we spoke to, it is not the physical preparation of the office space that is the real challenge – it is the human one. The ‘employee’ has changed (regardless of the generational differences we were once obsessed about) and what they want from their workplace is what businesses are grappling with. In fact, as an HR Director for one of the UK’s major property consultancies raised, getting people back to the office is the real challenge.

There is anxiety amongst employees about returning to work, particularly in London. A consultancy surveyed its employees across its 10 UK offices and over 20% had very high levels of concern. Naturally, there is the lingering COVID-19 fear and obviously people not wanting to contract the disease they have hidden away from for nearly three months. One HR Director mentioned how a video showing employees what measures are being taken and what the office would actually look like has helped in allaying fears.

It was also noted that people seem to be more comfortable with the ideas of an easing back to work. Instead of some momentous date when the doors of the office would reopen, there will be a gentle and cautious approach with people being invited in should they want, but still be able to work from home should they prefer. 

A reaction to some of the early government guidelines concerning lockdown that lacked clarity and specifics, has meant that employees seem to appreciate clear ‘rules’. For instance, employees want to know how to behave in communal areas such as kitchens, corridors etc. Possibly another reaction to reported failings of the government: workers are keen to hear about the provision of face coverings, gloves and hand sanitiser in the offices.

As one HR Director pointed out, the communication of these stringent measures is also important in managing expectations – there are many that are desperate for their old office and way of life but what they are going to return to is very different and they need to be prepared for that.

Top of the list of concerns, though, is out of the control of senior management – public transport and getting to work. As such, all the HR Directors were in agreement that safe options needed to be provided but, for the time being and where possible, employees needed to be given choices and allowed to do what they were most comfortable with.

What is the balance?

Whilst the absolute priority is the welfare of colleagues and the short-term challenge of getting people safely back to work; the long-term impact was also discussed. The HR Director of a major property developer had noticed that there were those who are twice as effective working from home over the crisis and those that are really struggling. Another from a FTSE 250 property investor spoke about their tight knit and collaborative culture and how regular working from home would rip out the heart of their business. Conversely, one HR Director’s experience over lockdown was that many had found the virtual world easier to collaborate and communicate with their colleagues in.

Like most things it’s a balancing act. Businesses are forever looking to maximise the productivity and effectiveness of employees. However, the ‘employee’ is an ever-changing persona as work and life blur, and physical and mental well-being are better understood. The workplace is a key area for debate and now, more than ever, HR are at the front line of business decisions.

Ben Ingram, Head of Real Estate practice at the search firm Berwick Partners, would like to thank all those HR Directors from the Property sector who attended the online forum.

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