The Connected Real Estate Virtual Tech Event concluded last week with the CRE Roundtable discussion featuring a panel of commercial real estate industry leaders. Fifth Gen Media CEO and publisher Rich Berliner moderated the panel that comprised Rudy Reagin (Deutsche Bank), Jonathan Schultz (Onyx Equities), Steve Todd (Open Sourced Workplace), Andrew Weakland (WP Carrey) and Andrew Segal (Boxer Properties).
The panel covered a number of topics throughout the discussion, including technology and its role in the commercial real estate industry—particularly now given that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced so many people are working remotely. The CRE industry has been somewhat slow to embrace tech compared to other verticals, but this time it had no choice but to take advantage of the resources available.
“What I’m seeing is the agony that we all went through trying to understand tech in real estate has definitely helped us through this crisis with cloud and connectivity,” Schultz said. “If we didn’t have that, we would not be able to do what we’re doing today—maintaining our businesses. (Technology) helped us as a company internally look at our processes, look at what we didn’t have time to maybe make more efficient, automate or fix.”
Technology was part Segal and his company’s day-to-day for more than a decade. Being ahead of the game allowed the staff to work from anywhere, but remain unified because everyone was working within one system. Segal is also the CEO of Stemmons, which provides a suite of tools that capture basic activity patterns. Users configure these tools to create any business process, regardless of industry or department.“We used technology for continuity,” Segal said. He also noted that technology should still be looked at a problem solver in CRE, even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Boxer has used technology not just to operate properties, but also to market them.
Reagin noted that technology can also help companies pivot quickly as it did for Deutsche Bank. The company had been working with sensors for the last few years to do things like see where there were unused desks in its offices. The company estimated a 70 percent utilization rate, but was aiming to get it over 100 percent with mobile working from home solutions. When the pandemic hit, Deutsche Bank was forced to change gears.
“Along came COVID, and we had to do social distancing,” Reagin said. “But we were able to use the same technology to identify where people were sitting too close together or getting to close together. It’s the same tech—it’s just changing the software behind it to look at different factors.”
Meanwhile, Weakland noted a simple way to incorporate technology with real estate—build off existing platforms.
“I’ve found most of my success in my career as a real estate technologist by taking mature technologies from other industries and just tweaking them slightly to fit what we have to do to get the job done,” he said. “I’m not reinventing the wheel—real estate didn’t invent cloud computing. We obviously leverage it heavily because of the multiple locations where we do business, the types of business we do, the databases we work with and everything else.”
The same goes for apps, according to Weakland. There are apps that help users gather information about other people and to help them connect people with needed information, advise them and provide feedback or coaching.
“What does not necessarily exist is the physical aspect of it,” Weakland said. “When I come into an office business, what does it entail? It entails sensors; luckily everyone happens to have a sensor and a computer in their pocket already, which makes things much easier. And that’s already seeing some friction in the marketplace—that physical aspect. It’s a small component to figuring out how to get someone fill out the form on their phone—that’s been solved for 15 years.”
Through Open Source Workplace, Todd’s goal is simple—bring information about workplace connectivity employee experience to everyone through an ungated community.
“It’s as simple as that,” Todd said. “We’re trying to provide insights and provide that information to everybody so we learn and we all benefit. It’s (about) trying to bring a community together, allow people to connect—that’s what I am aspiring to do.”
Todd also raised the question of if the technology currently being used to keep the trains moving while everyone’s working remotely will work just as effectively for people when they return to the office.
“We spoke to some technology folks, and the tech they’re looking at now is how to create a bubble around somebody who’s talking so nobody can hear outside of that bubble and people can only see what is immediately in front of you,” Todd said. “(The issue) is trying to evolve these technologies that are going to be deployed. And when people come back to the office, how do they ensure consistency is applied within an office environment? As 5G gets rolled out, those will be the technologies we will be looking to deploy in our main offices because it allows everyone to connect that much better.”
COVID-19 may have forced some CRE companies to embrace technology sooner than they would have liked, but whether there was a pandemic or not, now is the time for every company in the industry to use tech to move their business forward.
“We have a term for people who resist change and technology in our company—former employee,” Segal said. “There’s no room for somebody who’s not going to embrace this and treat it like a religion.”