New Workplace Strategies, According to a Real-Estate Specialist

The real estate specialist talks about new workplace strategies and the physical plant that supports them.

This is the last in my series of interviews with the specialists on the front lines of the workplace revolution currently in progress. My interest in the topic is as personal as it is strategic. I, along with most workers and employers wonder, “How will we work in 2020?”, less than a decade away. Here I ask Paul Darrah, head of corporate real estate at Bridgewater Associates, to approach the topic from the RE point of view. For other points of view, from other experts, look back at what Alison Kwiatkowski, Lyndon Thomas, Jan Johnson, and Tom Krizmanic said and think of how you are navigating your own evolutionary workplace.

Susan S. Szenasy: Your experience in real estate and strategic planning (just to mention two of your skills) make you a key voice in our conversation about the workplace of the future. Of the two areas I mention here, which is the most progressive in terms of understanding the major changes taking place in the workplace? Explain why.

Paul Darrah: The most critical issue in the workplace of the future is to understand how people work and what environment best promotes their ability to deliver their business objectives. Is RE [real estate] building and delivering the right solutions given there is no one size fits all across any organization. Understanding what the business needs is critical to ensuring the workplace of the future aligns to provide that canvas.

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The open plan environments have created new and different issues in the workplace depending on the type of work being performed in the space. A key component is understanding how productivity is impacted for heads down work of certain organizations and what additional space may be required for these knowledge workers to engage individually or in teams to perform effectively in meeting their responsibilities. This is a key focus of the RE and the business partners to understand how to effectively leverage space to meet the evolving and changing needs of the business.

SSS: In the design and construction, leasing and property management areas what is the word about how technology is changing the workplace and the spaces needed for it? Sometimes, from where I sit, it looks like the real estate community is wearing blindfolds (witness the Grand Central area redevelopment which seems to focus solely on office space; at a time when work is done everywhere). What’s going on here?

PD: This is most certainly a cyclical conversation. While technology continues to evolve and advance ways in which we can work remotely, it does NOT change the need for humans to interact and socialize. How frequently companies bring individuals together, as well as when and where, may impact their ability to continue to innovate. Organizations with a large remote work force are often more challenged to provide this environment and foster this type of social engagement.

Real Estate may not be wearing blindfolds, but may not be forcing the discussion at the right level to ensure the right type of space is built to support the organization. This may be dependent on the maturity model of an organization regarding remote working and their ability to provide workspace for individuals and collaborative space for the organization. The need for office space is not dead, although the type of office space to support a changing workforce and workplace model will continue to evolve.

SSS: As a member of the Trenton Economic Development Corporation, how do you see New Jersey’s state capital responding specifically to the changing workplace in a high tech society? Smaller metropolitan areas like Trenton seem to be undergoing the same, urbanizing shift, so your answer would be useful for economic development groups all over the U.S.

PD: I served on the Trenton EDC as part of my responsibilities while at Bloomberg and have not been actively involved since I left in 2006. With that said, it seems that many metropolitan areas, including NYC, have developed a good model to address the changing workplace in a high tech society. Many areas are engaging academic institutions to help facilitate the technology discussion, just as NYC is developing Roosevelt Island. They are proactively creating “incubator” models where small firms can share space, as well as technology platforms, to create start up opportunities. There is also an evolving approach of cross-industry integration that leverages firms across various sectors of business. This provides various metropolitan areas broader opportunities for expanded economic development in new market segments.

SSS: You are currently managing a portfolio of 6 million square feet at Bridgewater Associates. In that capacity, what are the most pressing workplace issues you’re encountering today? And what issues do you see dominating the discourse in 2020?

PD: Bridgewater’s portfolio is approximately 800K SF (Lehman was 6.5M SF). With that said, our approximately 2,200 employees are currently spread across six different locations within Westport and the surrounding areas. The most pressing workplace issue is in managing critical business adjacencies for a very dynamic and entrepreneurial organization.

A key goal is to make the portfolio as flexible as possible to support an evolving organization. As we have delivered a consistent and functional workplace solution across multiple locations, we have also learned that there are multiple workplace solutions for the way each of the business units operate.

Our challenge is to ensure the most flexibility in the workplace, while still meeting specific business requirements. In addition to providing for this customization, another key initiative is to determine the best  ways to minimize the negative impact of being spread across multiple sites through the use of video conferencing and other technologies that can facilitate connectivity of the business given our geographical circumstances.

Image: Bridgewater Associates

SSS: What technologies are changing the way you do your own work? Explain how. And what do you foresee changing even more in the next decade?

PD: Technology can provide great tools to facilitate the delivery of our work, however real estate is still a bricks and mortar/people business which requires heavy engagement with the customer. The technology innovations that have had the most benefit are the 3D rendering capabilities that enable us to provide life like imagery well in advance of the space being delivered. This has enabled us to get in sync on what the final product will look like and bridge the gap of people’s subject matter expertise and ability to understand the scope of the effort and engage effectively. These technologies have also enabled significant benefits through the balance of the projects provide significant time and cost reductions as we work through bidding and construction process as well. I firmly believe this will evolve as technology continues to improve and provide even more capabilities through the RE lifecycle of design, build, and operate.

Read more posts about the Workplace of the Future: Q&A: Jan Johnson on the Workplace of the Future; Q&A: Lyndon Thomas, Facilities Planner; Q&A: Tom Krizmanic; Q&A: Alison Kwiatkowski

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