At a time of rapid shifts and emerging market trends in commercial real estate, with increased interest in industrial real estate and medical and lab space, the lasting changes that COVID-19 brings to the industry will include new roles that didn’t exist before or some roles that may have been peripheral before becoming front and center for real estate firms.
A changing industry will inevitably require roles and positions to evolve in turn, and the growing importance of certain positions suggests an industry accelerating to be more diverse and more tech-savvy.
One of the more immediate changes may be the widespread adoption of what Chris Papa, managing director at Jackson Lucas, an executive search firm that specializes in real estate, calls the heads; specifically, heads of diversity and inclusion, chief of innovation, and the head of people and culture.
All these positions reflect corporate policy shifts, as well as the realization that prospective employees expect a workforce that’s more diverse, flexible and tech literate. While they’re not necessarily part of the C-suite, and not necessarily new, these positions will increasingly become more widespread and play larger roles in who gets hired and where firms work.
“Accelerated by COVID, there is new interest in hiring an internal resource and sometimes teams to lead innovation and lead digital transformations,” MetaProp partner Maureen Waters said.
The “where” question will become more and more vital as companies in all industries figure out how to return to the office as vaccinations ramp up, and how their real estate footprint will reflect changing notions of remote work and the perceived primacy of downtowns.
Liz Burrow, a workplace consultant and former WeWork executive, foresees a rising number of heads of remote work at non-CRE firms, suggesting a growing number of workers within CRE will need to cater to demands from occupier clients for satellite offices and a reconceived office footprint.
The existence of the position is a “wake-up call for organizations,” she told Bisnow, and a similar signal for CRE firms to be more fluent in changing notions of workplace culture, technology and new norms around office work. While titles may end up staying similar, there will be an increasing need to add a more detailed understanding of what could be called corporate anthropology; businesses will be making significant and potentially sweeping decisions about their workforce and office leasing.
Meeting the requirements of larger corporations, and ideally finding new clients, will require a contemporary understanding of new case studies and shifting trends. Burrow calls them a “complex combination of needs,” which will constantly be tested by the latest breaking epidemiological news.
What both mission-based executive positions, like a head of diversity, and remote work teams share is a need for better data analysis. Factor in the uncertainty around so much of the industry, and it makes sense that there’s an increasing demand for data engineers and data scientists, MetaProp’s Waters said. Months of mounting losses suggest many companies may be reluctant to pull the trigger on new deals without additional certainty.
“As we come out of the pandemic in 2021, there is focused attention on having the right tools to make better, more informed decisions and to lower operating costs,” she said.
This includes team members who are fluent in new tools to monitor performance, including digital twins (virtual versions of physical assets that help with tracking and analysis), as well as behavioral tools. These roles also suggest significant overlap with other positions and priorities; having the data to better understand how shared space is being used, and how that is changing, can make it much easier to sell and lease such space to clients trying to figure out their own futures.
Data, of course, can’t always predict what’s coming next or see around corners. But the desire to cut costs will influence the commercial real estate workforce this year, new positions or not. Allison Weiss, founder and principal of CRE Recruiting, said she is seeing a lot more outsourcing within the industry, and believes it can be great for freelancers looking to see if they’re interested in working for a particular company.
“I’m seeing a lot more companies utilizing project-based freelance and virtual resources than ever before,” said Weiss.
CEL & Associates CEO Christopher Lee also told Bisnow that CRE companies are increasingly investigating the potential of making many roles more efficient, even hiring freelancers, as they go through the same analysis of internal performance and budgets as the companies they court.
“Probably 35% of the workforce in real estate will not come back full-time into the office,” Lee said. “That’s why companies are increasingly shifting a number of their functions to automation, offshoring, artificial intelligence and independent contractors. They feel the work has to get done, so if someone isn’t coming back to work, maybe it’s better if I automate that function. Those investigations are clearly being pursued actively.”
Remote work, it turns out, may create new positions, while making other positions especially remote.