The future of the office is changing: here’s how to improve the occupant experience

people future of office workplace employees

Everything from the quality of the workspace to the office location, to a company’s mandate plays an obvious role. Image: Freepik.

Kalin Bracken
Lead, Real Estate Industry, World Economic Forum
Anu Devi
Project Lead, Urban Transformation, World Economic Forum
Rachel Steinberg
Head of Mesa, Sidewalk Labs, Google
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  • As of September 2022, North American office occupancy rates reached 47.5%, which is still only half of pre-pandemic levels.
  • High-growth companies (63%) have already adopted hybrid work models which has impacted office occupancy. Re-evaluating how spaces can accommodate the changing needs of occupants is essential to shape the future of the office.
  • Using digital tech, a new toolkit, by the World Economic Forum, aims to help landlords understand the needs of their tenants to improve the experience for occupants.

Office occupancy rates in North America – the rate at which people actually occupy the building versus how much space is leased – gradually reached 47.5% in September 2022. While this is promising for landlords, occupancy is still half that of pre-pandemic levels.

Approximately 63% of high-growth companies have adopted hybrid work models; while workers prefer hybrid options 83% of the time. During a time when organizations are embracing new models of work, space must be better optimized to serve the needs of users and drive regular attendance.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Real Estate Taskforce on Digital Transformation has developed a Toolkit for Improving the Occupant Experience – which can help stakeholders determine the right occupant experience solutions for the office by understanding the needs of their tenants, and whether technology can help achieve them.

Have you read?

There is no shortage of articles, research studies and predictions about the future of work and the office. But the world is still in the early stages of a post-pandemic return to work and implementation of widespread hybrid models. The long-term implications of hybrid work for commercial real estate remains unknown and many companies are embarking on processes to assess their needs, understand their employees, and implement an effective in-office cadence.

How do we get people back to the office?

Myriad research and anecdotal evidence have pointed to a variety of factors that can influence an individual’s office attendance. Everything from the quality of the workspace to the office location, to a company’s mandate, plays an obvious role.

Then there is a slew of subfactors from the type of work people do, to their industry, age, family situation and personality. These less apparent factors often comprise the notion of the “occupant experience”.

The occupant experience is inherently subjective and esoteric. Some people may enjoy bustling spaces full of energy while others may prefer more subdued, quieter environments. What makes one person feel more creative may make another tired.

Regardless of these wide-ranging factors, the office will continue to play some role in bringing people together and improving the office offering to meet the changing demands of tenants and other occupants must be prioritized and strategized to keep the office thriving.

A toolkit for improving the office occupant experience

A lot has changed in the workplace since the onset of COVID-19. Landlords want to better understand their occupants preferences, what will motivate people to attend the office, convince their tenants to renew their leases, and ultimately, improve the value of their office assets.

The Forum’s Future of Real Estate: Taskforce on Digital Transformation sought to understand the occupant experience through the lens of digital technology. As the future of the commercial office came under a microscope, technology offerings claiming to help also surged.

This category of technology, often referred to under the wide-ranging term “Proptech”, requires a landlord to discern what can actually add value. This task can be daunting, especially for smaller management companies and owners that do not have in-house digital technology expertise or the time to fully research and evaluate what might make occupants happier and the relevant enabling technologies.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to support the Future of Real Estate?

The first step to improving the occupant experience is understanding as much as possible what occupants and the tenant decision-makers at their organizations want from their space. This is not an easy process and requires continual outreach, information gathering and observation.

The Taskforce developed a Toolkit for Improving the Occupant Experience, which includes a survey that landlords can use to get feedback from their tenants to comprehend their needs. It also includes a request for technology solutions and a technology assessment questionnaire to help landlords understand the available universe of technology options and assess various vendors and products at a more nuanced level.

Once the landlord knows the needs of their tenant, they can utilize these elements to explore the digital technology landscape more easily and use appropriate questions to identify the right vendors and products.

Key digital technology considerations

As commercial office stakeholders look to bring people back to the office, improve the overall office offerings and adapt technology in the process, the following expert insights have been shared through the Taskforce:

  • Technology may or may not help: Despite the way products are often marketed, technology is not a panacea and often it is difficult to isolate and identify how successful a single technology solution is at driving overall real estate value, especially across different building classes and geographies. Improving the occupant experience may also not require the most sophisticated solution and more practical approaches could markedly improve the situation.
  • Measure and monitor the impact of technology: Widespread hybrid work has not been around for long and the industry still lacks data on what works to support occupancy levels. It will take time to collect this data set making it critical to start monitoring and tracking data, even imperfectly, as soon as possible.
  • Identify the right solutions: The technology market is fragmented and we need to ask the right questions to navigate the market to find adequate solutions. For example, potential customers must consider whether they need an end-to-end solution or more targeted ones. Understanding long-term goals can help more easily identify the right technology and implementation process from the start.
  • Data and privacy matter: Landlords should be adopting data and privacy protection in accordance with local legal requirements and best practices to ensure any data captured in the process is done so in a responsible way. Those landlords operating across borders and jurisdictions must pay attention to requirements and best practices for privacy and data protection.

Commercial office real estate is in the process of significant transformation and there is no doubt technology will help play a role. All classes of office buildings should have access to resources to help navigate changing demand and assess how best to improve physical space to better people’s work lives, our neighbourhoods and cities. Spaces must meet the needs of the people and communities first.

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