Commercial real estate’s core function as a provider of workspace serves as something of a living lab for the industry’s own human resources strategies. Building owners/managers are increasingly pressed to: meet tenant demand for new kinds of services and technological capability; safeguard business continuity in times of cyber and climatic peril; and deliver a return on investment in the face of a growing array of competition from shiny new towers, co-working space and home offices. In turn, these pressures influence decisions about hiring and staff deployment.
“There is quite a lot of fear. Nobody wants to be obsolete,” Michelle Walker, vice president, facility management operations, with the real estates services provider, BGIS, told seminar attendees at the recent REMI Show in Toronto.
Industry insiders in a variety of roles joined her to discuss the challenges and opportunities for recruiting and fostering required new skill sets. Beyond their own staffing needs, they’ve got a material interest in supporting their tenants’ talent attraction efforts. James Ashley, a partner with the real estate placement specialists, HighView Partners, steered the exploration of those intertwined mandates — drawing out insight on the evolving workplace and the forces shaping employers’ and employees’ expectations.
Advancements in building technology, a cascade of data from an ever-expanding network of collection points and rigorous environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting protocols have transformed some of real estate’s traditional tasks, while introducing some time-consuming new priorities.
“That’s simply changing the day-to-day roles of staff,” observed Jeff Ranson, regional director for the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) in Greater Toronto, as he sketched out key trends shaping current and future hiring needs.
New kinds of expertise required
Today’s operators and managers and are expected to be tech-savvy and customer service oriented. Property managers are typically perceived as the public face of the ownership and the first link to tenants, but innumerable tasks related to budgeting, regulatory compliance and reporting to owners/asset managers can keep them at their desks and less visible to tenants. Meanwhile, climate change adaptation now figures prominently on the real estate industry’s to-do list, coupled with targets for deep retrofits and zero-carbon new development.
“These are buildings that are going to operate differently. We are going to have to figure out how to manage these things,” Ranson said. “There are a lot of new things that people are going to need to do and know, and the skills are not necessarily there.”
Similarly, big data presents a big learning curving as practitioners in all commercial real estate’s disciplines — management, operations, investment, brokerage — strive to understand and manage an influx of information that is both a tool and a commodity.
“We have instrumented this society. If you are carrying a smartphone, you are generating data,” advised Murtaza Haider, an associate professor in the real estate faculty at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management. “The amount of data has also resulted in the situation that we are data-rich and insight-poor.”
Although property management has long relied on well-rounded generalists, the meteoric pace of change has many employers looking to develop and augment specialized in-house expertise. “Instead of trying to turn a facilities manager into a data scientist, we added data scientists to our team,” Walker reported.
She predicts many companies will take the same course. “There will be more changes in the next 10 years than we’ve had in the past decade; 80 per cent of the technologies we’ll be using in 10 years haven’t even been invented yet,” she speculated.
Reaching small-c customers
QuadReal Property Group’s programs and operational excellence division is an in-house resource for the management and operations of a 49-million-square-foot portfolio of office, retail, industrial and multifamily properties that’s also a frontline delivery agent. With smart technology firmly entrenched and producing results on the building operations side of the business, tenant services is the next frontier, unfolding through initiatives like a recently launched tenant app.
“Previously, we have really concentrated the technology back-of-house in the elements our tenants don’t see as much. The focus has been on how to make the real estate better and lowering operating costs,” recounted Nada Sutic, the division’s director. “We’re evolving with the expectations of the people who are coming into our buildings. We want a tenant app so they can self-serve on certain things, but we also want to maintain that personal connection.”
Expectations and technology both push and enable building/owners to reach past what Sutic terms the traditional “big-C customer” in the role of tenants’ official representatives to communicate with the building occupancy or “small-c customers” at a more personal level. “A new approach to customer service training is really high on our list,” she said.
QuadReal’s mixed portfolio provides the obvious platform to pilot emerging tenant-focused technology in residential properties. However, Walker points to employers’ evolving attitudes to accommodating personal tasks in a workforce now more prone to running errands on a keyboard than on foot and/or to work remotely at all hours from a range of venues. Big-C customers continue to make the space-related decisions in commercial real estate, but they do so with an eye to pursuing those small-c customers themselves.
“The lines have blurred,” Walker submitted. “The distance between work life and personal life has almost blended.”
Delving into the talent pool
As employers, landlords can often identify with their tenants’ human resources concerns and priorities. Louise Porthouse, vice president, human resources, with Triovest Realty Advisors, is on the frontlines of the war for talent.
“There are some incredibly hard-to-fill positions,” she affirmed. “That’s the case even with some junior positions. For example, it’s hard to get good property administrators.”
Technology has vastly expanded the reach of job postings and simultaneously opened the channels for a flood of not necessarily qualified responses. Accordingly, human resources specialists are called upon to provide quality and quantity control. “We want to create a friction-free process for the candidate, but also for our hiring managers,” Porthouse reiterated.
Haider cautions against Artificial Intelligence shortcuts for what’s still a labour-intensive task. Since real data is used to train AI’s algorithms, it could entrench biases into the application vetting process. “I am not a big enthusiast for AI primarily because these things can’t tell you what you don’t already know,” he said.
Alternatively, he suggests the field of candidates could be narrowed more easily if applicants were required to fill out a questionnaire in conjunction with submitting their resumes. “It would put some of the due diligence at their end,” Haider reasoned.
“We currently don’t use AI. That doesn’t mean that at some point we won’t have to,” Porthouse added. “Right now, I am getting bombarded by tech firms promoting their capability in this field.”
Meanwhile, a longstanding multidisciplinary workforce arguably positions commercial real estate well to embrace new business approaches and professional directions. Panellists already espouse compatible philosophies.
“Within our operational excellence department we have a focus on communication, collaboration and consistency,” Sutic said.
“Diversity of thought is highly valued. It’s how innovation is fuelled,” Walker concurred. “I don’t think it’s about: you were an apple and now we have to make you into an orange.”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.