Long before COVID-19 became an omnipresent part of Canadian life, Meredith Thatcher could sense an emerging seismic shift in the way tenants used technology to reimagine traditional office space.
A workplace strategist who ran her own Ottawa consulting firm, Thatcher had spent years helping clients figure out how much office real estate they needed and how to use it efficiently.
Over nearly two decades working with employers in Canada and the U.S., Thatcher heard a common refrain: her clients were thirsting for more and better data on exactly what type of work environments their employees preferred and the financial implications of redesigning their workplaces to accommodate those needs.
“The one thing that was missing was software tools that would really accelerate the process and reduce the level of heavy resources (needed) for data management,” she says.
Along with fellow consultant and friend Lisa Chillingworth Watson, Thatcher hunted in vain for a single tool that could help companies determine which employees should be working mostly on site and which might be better served in a hybrid environment.
“We had searched and searched and we had tested a few that kind of did what we wanted, but not entirely,” she says. “So we decided to build our own.”
In 2019, Thatcher and Chillingworth Watson devised a platform that compiles survey data on employees’ work preferences – everything from how comfortable they were interacting with colleagues and clients to how they felt about their daily commute – and uses algorithms to categorize workers into four distinct groups, among them “resident rituals” who thrive in the office setting and “mobile mavericks” who feel at home working anywhere, from coffee shops to airport departure lounges.
The software also analyzes the financial and environmental impacts of different office configurations – for example, showing clients how much they’d save on rent, heating and other costs if they reduced their physical footprints, or how many hours employees could avoid sitting in traffic every week if they worked from home.
“We took all of our expertise of being in this business and baked it into the algorithms of the software,” Thatcher says. “Part of our job is to help (employers) really, truly envision what that (workplace) future is and help them move forward on their decision-making.”
Right from the start, the product was a hit. But Thatcher says demand for the software has accelerated since the pandemic began as more employers shifted en masse to a work-from-home strategy and are now contemplating how office life will change in a post-pandemic world.
Her company, Agile Work Evolutions, is winning nearly 90 per cent of the contracts it bids on. Earlier this year, Thatcher and Chillingworth Watson announced they’d sold the firm to Cresa, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate brokerage that represents tenants and plans to roll the software out to clients across North America.
“What (tenants) are realizing is that, as the pandemic goes on, people’s perceptions, people’s willingness to be at home or not wanting to be at home is changing,” says Thatcher, who is now Cresa’s managing principal of workplace strategy.
“I think we’ll continue to see significant change over the next five years at least. Tools like this will help.”
Thatcher’s firm is one of a myriad of companies in the growing field of property technology, or proptech, looking to cash in as employers rethink traditional office space in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
While some employees have embraced the idea of working from home during the pandemic, others are clamouring to get back to the office, with its water-cooler conversations and opportunities for face-to-face collaboration.
As a result, more tenants are looking for help from technology to strike the right balance, explains Martin Aass, managing principal at Cresa Ottawa.
“People need to have the tools to figure out what the next step is,” says Aass, who thinks the acquisition of Workplace Agile Evolution’s software will give his company an edge over other brokerages that don’t have a similar product in their arsenal.
He estimates about 50 per cent of Cresa’s local clients have begun using technology such as mobile apps that automatically track how many people are in the office at any given time as they map out their return to the workplace.
Cresa principal Lynn Owen, who heads the brokerage’s local project management team, says such tools are becoming indispensable to more and more tenants.
“It helps from an employee perspective, in terms of being in control of their workspace and where and when they work,” she says. “And it really informs HR or the leadership team as to how people are working. I think it was kind of the missing piece when we started (reimagining the workplace during the pandemic).”
Sensing an opportunity, other local companies have jumped on the proptech bandwagon.
Among them is Nook, a spinoff of e-commerce software maker Foko Retail that launched last summer.
The startup’s app lets managers and employees know where everyone is planning to work on a certain day – say, at home, or in a particular boardroom or meeting area – and displays their purpose for being there.
Co-founder Chad Carlson says the system is designed to help companies navigate a new mode of working in which not everyone is going to be in the same workspace at the same time.
“Really, we’re trying to give people the tools they need to determine when the best opportunity to go into the office is,” he told OBJ last year. “You might go into the office expecting to see someone and they’re not going to be there.”
While Agile Work Evolutions and Nook say the market for proptech solutions is ripe for the taking, some Ottawa brokers and landlords say many tenants are still too preoccupied with more pressing issues – such as whether they’ll even need a physical office in a post-pandemic world – to think about implementing new apps and software platforms.
“Their focus right now isn’t necessarily how the building performs, but whether they still need the office space at all,” says Warren Wilkenson, managing director of Colliers International in Ottawa.
At Constitution Square, the downtown home of Colliers’ Ottawa operations, property manager Canderel uses apps to ensure tenants comply with various COVID-related public health restrictions – for example, informing them when the gym has reached full capacity.
But Wilkenson says most of his clients aren’t proactively seeking out such tools, at least not yet.
“I will say, though, when we do have those conversations and we bring these things to light, we can see that tenants are starting to appreciate the nuances that they weren’t paying attention to before,” he adds.
Bruce Wolfgram, a principal at Ottawa’s Proveras Commercial Realty who represents tenants, says proptech solutions aren’t top of mind for his clients either.
“Most of our tenants aren’t at the stage yet where they’re actually even thinking about how to book a place in a gym or a boardroom,” he says.
At KRP Properties in Kanata, president Martin Vandewouw agrees it’s still too soon to get an accurate read on just how prevalent such technology will become.
Even when COVID restrictions were loosened last summer, he says most of his company’s buildings were no more than 15 per cent occupied. That percentage will need to rise dramatically before tenants really start to weigh the pros and cons of proptech, Vandewouw adds.
“We expect at some point a lot of these questions will come up, but it’s still early days,” he says. “I think that once (tenants) have addressed the things that are preventing them from coming back, then they'll start to get into more of the physical environment (questions).”
Meanwhile, Proveras partner and co-founder Alan Doak questions the long-term need for such technology, calling it “theatre.”
“It is not, I think, going to have any lasting value,” he says. “I think that is dollars sunk that could be better spent on lasting improvements like better-quality air flow or improving the windows or insulation or whatever it might be to add value to an asset and increase a tenant’s actual comfort.”
Doak argues such tools could actually delay a widespread return to the office because they might cause employees to doubt whether their workspaces are safe.
“If you want people not to be scared, you have to get rid of all those things,” he says. “Because any time you're logging in to check the number of people somewhere or you’re worrying about the airflow or you’re counting the number of masks on people’s faces, nobody is ever going to feel comfortable being in the office.”
But back at Cresa, Owen says she believes such technology is here to stay.
“I don't think they’re going away, particularly as companies are embracing the remote work strategy,” she says. “You have to be able to manage that. The workplace has changed entirely … and I think that it’s a great management tool.”