Mark Gilbreath is the founder and CEO of LiquidSpace, the largest, real time network for office space. The LiquidSpace Network connects growing teams and professionals looking for work space, directly with venue partners, space providers, real estate professionals and service providers, eliminating the cost and complexities of traditional leasing.
LiquidSpace recently released their 2020 State of the Flexible Workspace Industry Report showcasing where the flexible workspace industry is heading. We spoke with Mark to get his take on current trends for remote work, and how the Covid-19 crisis will affect workplace standards and office real estate now and into the future.
Next for Me: We understand that your report, a lot of the research on it was done prior to the pandemic. But we are noticing the trends to remote work as much as possible in the fields where that’s a possibility. I’m really interested in kind of getting your perspective on the human aspect of this. We know that one of the big motivators for people wanting to go back to a work place is they’re missing that face to face interaction.
Mark Gilbreath: Absolutely. I think, I’d actually sort of say to set the stage for commenting on why are people from their point of view today, hungry to go back to work? I think it’s worthwhile to actually step back and, and take stock of the magnitude of change that we’ve just seen happen with regards to remote work. I mean, it was re you know, not long ago, four months ago, five months ago, the topic of remote work and who should be enabled to do remote work and what work can be done remotely was radically different than the reality that people understand today. I mean, in January, if you were a remote work advocate or evangelist, you were trying to chip away at an establishment that still broadly was based upon a very conservative principle of presenteeism. The only place that work can effectively happen is at the office.
I think it’s worthwhile to actually step back and, and take stock of the magnitude of change that we’ve just seen happen with regards to remote work.
The only place where I can trust an employee to do her or his work is if I can see them in the office. And then other well-intentioned concepts, like, you know, our culture is important as a company, our brand is important as a company and those things can’t possibly exist or be nurtured if the company isn’t all together, those were, those were strongly held beliefs only six months ago. And of course today, something intervened as a massive change agent, which is this invisible enemy of a pandemic. And it didn’t give us any, it didn’t give any leadership or employees, managers, or employees were deprived of the ability to decide whether or not they wanted to remote work. We of course were thrust into that context. Yes. And from that happening, some very interesting things have occurred. A great many employees who have been, so in fact, amongst all of us who have been working from home, I’d argue that there are sort of several, three cohort groups that are starting to take shape.
There is most definitely a community of individuals who have been working at home who have had a somewhat eye opening experience and realized, well, Hey, I’ve been able to do my work, working from home. And the other aspects that go with it, the avoidance of a commute, et cetera, has actually been very positive and it’s been net positive for me. And if I’m allowed, I’m going to want to immigrate, I’m gonna want to persist in this way. It has worked for me. In addition, the other key sort of demonstrated learning has been a generation or a cohort of managers who have been forced to take their hands off the controls. And so yes, of course you have to work at home. Carole has observed that, you know, Mark and Carole have been able to do their work, right.
There is most definitely a community of individuals who have been working at home who have had a somewhat eye opening experience and realized, well, Hey, I’ve been able to do my work, working from home. And the other aspects that go with it, the avoidance of a commute, et cetera, has actually been very positive.
And so there’s been a radically accelerated advance in terms of management’s perspective on what can happen remotely. So you’ve got the cohort group, that’s happy.
There’s been a radically accelerated advance in terms of management’s perspective on what can happen remotely
I think to your question, who wants to come back in, and what for, that relates to a second cohort group, amongst those of us who have all been working home, which are, who are mostly happy, meaning Yes, they’ve, they’ve been getting work done. They’ve had to, we all had to. But the mostly happy are finding it, “Yeah. You know what home is proving to be a very viable place for me to do work. Maybe I did a little bit of it at home, one day a week in the past. I’m having to do five weeks, five days a week now. I actually think that my adaptation might change. My behavior change is curing in now, baking in.
I envision I’m going to want to spend two, three, four days a week, if not all five. There… for the “Mostly Happy” it’s two, three or four, I am still going to periodically or episodically want or need to be back with others. And this gets to the heart of your question. So what, what are we seeing? What are the things that are prompting people to either need to be back with others, or want to be. Let’s break into those two branches on the need front.
There certainly is some work that is implicitly collaborative, that is, that enjoys, the experiential aspects of being in the same room, whether that is something so literal as a brainstorm session with post-it notes and whiteboards, right? You guys are consultants and thought leaders, you know, that that modality still struggles to be implemented in a digital context.
Although there are some, you know, there are some great collaborative tools that are trying to emulate those very concepts. There still is something in terms of efficiency of collaboration, material, interaction that hungers for an in-person context. In addition, another sort of flavor of collaboration that sort of wants interaction in person at times is client interaction or partner interaction. Right there, there are certain exchanges, you know, negotiations and the like that have been happening over Zoom for the last 12 weeks, but they want that breaking of the bread, that negotiation customer interface, those things want to be in a human context. So those are, I’d say need-driven ones where the work typology, the work construct, you know, is implicitly collaborative in nature and multi-party, and where it prefers it, where it has productivity benefits of being together.
There still is something in terms of efficiency of collaboration, material, interaction that hungers for an in-person context.
The other piece that I want to come back, I think it’s a softer one and it’s still a bit mercurial. We need to honor it, it is the, “I want to be back amongst my community of colleagues for again”, the softer side. I want to be back amongst my company and my brand and my colleagues. I want to sort of afford some of those experiences. It goes to the hierarchy of my personal needs. It goes to my need for interaction and for a feeling of connection with you two, for example. And so that the work that I might do when I’m back at the office may not be implicitly collaborative, but I want to be back amongst others.
The work that I might do when I’m back at the office may not be implicitly collaborative, but I want to be back amongst others.
NFM: Now, I’m getting into to the practical side of things. You know, we were seeing in your report and other places as well, what are the logistics that we’re going to have to be maneuvering with, in this new world? The cleanliness factor, the social distancing factor, the end of the open plan workspace, for example. What are you seeing as the specifics of those practical concerns?
MG: Well, I’ll break that into a, sort of a more tactical answer, and then a more strategic one, and they’re both important. More tactically, if the question is what has to be done for people to come back to the office, we can take a very tactical response to that. And there are some fairly obvious things like these environments, health and safety protocols, both in the user behaviors and the physical environments need to be implemented, auditable, enforceable. Those things have to happen. And look, the good news is, most, if not all large employers have had many, many weeks now to, aggressively mobilize on building their back-to-the-office protocols, their playbooks, and, you know, there’s ample documentation online about the various sorts of aspects of those environments. But broadly speaking, they involve, readying the physical environments to be safer in the context of a still persistent epidemic, right?
More tactically, if the question is what has to be done for people to come back to the office, we can take a very tactical response to that. And there are some fairly obvious things like these environments, health and safety protocols, both in the user behaviors and the physical environments need to be implemented, auditable, enforceable.
And so, density levels are being dropped radically. In the Bay area where we all sort of reside, the norms on re-entry are going to be anticipating de-densifying the offices. By constricting their capacities by as much as 90%. In addition, there are sort of structural modifications that are being made that sort of go along with that principle of De-densification. So increasing the spacing between people within the environments, preparing protocols for other physical choke points that bring people into proximity. I mean, the elevators, the lifts and buildings are an enormous logistical challenge and a choke point given the fact that they were designed to pack people in literally shoulder to shoulder, and that’s simply not tenable at the present time. So you’ve got physical distancing and overall density level precautions that are being taken.
There are sort of structural modifications that are being made that sort of go along with that principle of De-densification. So increasing the spacing between people within the environments, preparing protocols for other physical choke points that bring people into proximity. I mean, the elevators, the lifts and buildings are an enormous logistical challenge and a choke point given the fact that they were designed to pack people in literally shoulder to shoulder, and that’s simply not tenable at the present time.
You also have a whole layer of efforts that are being undertaken to try to move toward a more touchless environment, and that relates to all aspects of how I access the building. I mean, am I grabbing a door knob or does it open automatically? Am I pushing buttons on the elevator or is it auto routed? If I’m a guest in an environment, am I picking up a pen and signing a badge, or is it a touchless experience to capture my identity. When I’m inside of the environment and I’m using that meeting room with a whiteboard, am I bringing my own whiteboard markers? Or are they shared with me? If it’s a meeting room that was shared the prior hour, has it been cleaned before I come in?
If I’m sitting down at a workstation that might be shared with other employees, are there precautions being taken either to clean it or to ensure that it was left idle for sufficient time for any contagions to die off. These are all of the sort of physical touch related dimensions and on and on. So, if you’re an employer who owns or leases its own workplace as a home, or if you’re a workspace as a service operator, that’s all working up, et cetera, broadly speaking, you’ve mobilized are mobilizing on all those dimensions. That’s the tactical response. That’s simply making it safe and, or safer in perception and reality for the users of space. And we can talk more and more about other aspects of safety, health, there’s the air quality, et cetera, but there’s a lot to be done there.
I’ll comment on what the other dimension is that I think is worth exploring, which is the more strategic one, but I’ll pause before I go into it, you can tell me if you want to go there, but more strategically is alright, who wants to come back? Who will come back? What has changed? What might this look like on the other side, whether that’s 12 months from now or 36 months from now, that’ll, I’ll pause before going there.
NFM: Right, right. It all kind of factors in. So, we’re really interested in this trend, away from the headquarters, with more and more satellite offices, maybe moving out to the suburbs, maybe just branching out a little bit more. Are you seeing who is best equipped? What sorts of companies are best equipped to kind of pivot in that way and which ones are you maybe seeing, having some difficulty there?
MG: Such a fascinating question. I think part of what’s been so startling is the scope and diversity of companies that have so rapidly declared that they are undertaking what I would define as workplace transformation and are fundamentally rethinking and reorganizing what their real estate strategy is. Ranging from perhaps not surprising, progressive and innovative adaptive companies like Twitter and Okta and Facebook, that the technology companies in the Bay area that you might imagine would be nimble and disruptive. Multitudes of them have declared that they are going to either for the extended duration, if not permanently allow work from home or work from anywhere to be a privilege, right. To be an option that the employee has. So that’s happened amongst that cadre. But you’ve also seen CEO-level declarations from some of the most conservative and staid organizations, Morgan Stanley, Nationwide Insurance, right?
I think part of what’s been so startling is the scope and diversity of companies that have so rapidly declared that they are undertaking what I would define as workplace transformation and are fundamentally rethinking and reorganizing what their real estate strategy is.
These are not companies that transform on a dime, but James Gorman, the CEO of Morgan Stanley was out there amongst the first to declare, we’ve been working 90% at home for, for the last X-many weeks. We’ve had no major issues. Clearly we will need much less real estate. I mean, that quote was made 10 plus weeks ago, if not three months ago. So I think we’re seeing workplace transformation, which I’ll unpack further, across industries, across companies, scale from startup to established long-term enterprise, from technology to insurance, to financial services, to manufacturing. And, if we unpack it, what is workplace transformation looking like?
It’s not binary, it’s not black and white, but some of the elements of it that seem to be the patterns that are starting to emerge include flexibility and choice is actually being given to employees, right? So there’s a paradigm shift in terms of employee empowerment, which I think is extraordinary and very advantageous for humanity, for the planet and for workers. And so, and I feel so strongly about it ‘cause it’s been one of the things that we’ve been championing for a decade and many others that have promoted remote work have at the simplest level. You know, each individual has the best opportunity to gauge the environment in which they are going to be most effective. In my humble opinion, it’s practically impossible for even a well-intentioned workplace leader to really understand the uniqueness and the needs of an individual employee.
The patterns that are starting to emerge include flexibility and choice is actually being given to employees, right? So there’s a paradigm shift in terms of employee empowerment, which I think is extraordinary and very advantageous for humanity, for the planet and for workers.
And so the premise of I’m going to build a great workspace and, and mandate that everybody comes to it, it might be well-intentioned, you might’ve spent a lot of money. It might be extraordinary for some or even many employees, but you can’t, you can’t… humanity, and the diversity of work is so diverse that it’s a flawed assumption to assume that that one size can fit all. So, I think, I think we’re on the right side of history now with flexibility and choice being given to employees. And you’re seeing that as Facebook saying, employees, you can live where you want to and Twitter saying to their employees, you can work from home as long as you want to. So, it’s manifesting and another pattern that’s emerging. And it’s sort of taking on multiple labels: hub and spoke, satellite offices, secondary markets.
Another thing that’s emerging is we’re seeing multiple companies, Shopify, Twitter, Okta, Facebook saying, all right, we’re going to give employees choice. We’ve also double clicked on that. And we’ve also considered where do you want to live? We’ll let you work from home. Where would you want to live? And, and the accelerated learnings that companies have quickly siezed on. And some actually were working on this before COVID was, Wow, our employees want to live, or the employees that we might want to hire are already choosing to live in other places than New York and San Francisco. So our workplace strategy is going to actually be driven by that. We’re going to provide flexibility and choice to the employees. And we’re going to create workplace environments that are available in secondary markets, hubs and spokes. I might be Facebook with my corporate, for the brand identity, headquarters in the Bay Area on the peninsula. But what they’ve indicated as an example is, an accelerated move in the coming years, to where they have smaller offices sort of shared branded environments in multiple other markets complimented by employees that sort of swarm around that– there’s your spokes. So, I think we might anticipate a Renaissance of relevance for secondary cities, a Renaissance of relevance for suburbia. That goes hand in glove with employees having been given permission, they’ll be voting with their feet moving where they might want.
I think we might anticipate a Renaissance of relevance for secondary cities, a Renaissance of relevance for suburbia. That goes hand in glove with employees having been given permission, they’ll be voting with their feet moving where they might want.
An adaptation of what workplace is around that corporate headquarters might get smaller. Corporate workplace is going to become more distributed. And in total workplace for a given company is definitively going to be a combination of the employees home, plus hubs and spokes, in our world that’s likely to include a great deal of flexible office as part of that equation between home and flex and the company’s headquartered location, wherever that might be.
NFM: You actually already touched on something I was going to ask you next, which is about that hybrid that we’re looking at towards the future, even when there’s a vaccine, even when there’s a cure, there’s still the psychology behind it. There’s the need for people to become comfortable once again. So one of the things that we’re looking at, we do a lot of in-person events or we used to do a lot of in person events. And so we’ve been experimenting and looking at ways that we can reach out to folks on social media, doing Facebook Lives and Instagram Lives and things like that. Do you have any thoughts about how a flexible workspace could also in turn support that sort of hybrid, some folks are here in person and some folks are joining via Zoom or some other sort of teleconferencing or something like that?
MG: Yeah, I have some thoughts, more around the areas that are still deficient that we’ll probably see faster acceleration. But look, just to be clear, I might separate my response into the physical layer of the workplace and then the digital layer of work and workplace. And so I contend the physical workplace is never, ever going again to be for the world as a whole, an office. So that that’s been atomized and distributed. Workplace is now going to be an extension or a distributed workplace from home to interstitial spaces or flexible office locations, and then longer term dedicated spaces that might be bigger. It’s going to be all three of those buckets. That’s the place layer. The work itself is going to be sprinkled across that place layer. Individuals will be bouncing around and navigating between those places.
The physical workplace is never, ever going again to be for the world as a whole, an office. So that that’s been atomized and distributed. Workplace is now going to be an extension or a distributed workplace from home to interstitial spaces or flexible office locations, and then longer term dedicated spaces that might be bigger.
Some might stay all the time at home. Some might stay all the time at a flexible office. Some might be all the time at an HQ, most will navigate across those as such, at any given day at any given time when work is happening. And given that there’s a lot of collaboration work these days, it’s quite likely that in this new world, there will be in any one of those locations. There will be collaboration happening with others that are elsewhere. So, Carole might be at the company HQ location, and Mark and Jeff might be both together side by side at a flexible office, or it might both be at their home location. And so I think that an interesting new challenge that I at least don’t feel is fully optimized, which is how do we allow it, or how do we optimize for the experience in terms of productivity and social standing and all the other dimensions of effective communications and work?
How do we make it, how do we normalize the effect of Carole being remote and Jeff being in the same room? How can technology, like, is this going to be, polygrams, is it going to be screens on the wall that allow me to tunnel into the other person’s location? How do we not discriminate unintentionally about the individual that might be remote whenever, when four other people are in the room? For example, and those phenomena sort of long been observed, you know, who hasn’t been in a meeting where there were 10 people in the room and one person was not. And the person who wasn’t in the room just ended up as an afterthought or was somehow suppressed. And so, I think, I think there’s a lot of opportunity and I trust that behaviors and policies and technology will work on that because it will be a, it will be an opportunity there will be yield to make that a better experience. And I’ve touched on some of this stuff. I mean, I think, virtual reality and avatars and, and better media displays and more thoughtfulness around making a real experience, even though it might be through digital pipe. Like some of that stuff’s been worked on for a lot of years. I mean, Cisco with its telepresence technology has put a lot of energy into making it lifelike.
NFM: Last week we had some ideas about how California was going to shut down. And as of yesterday, that completely changed. How is that? How are people who are trying to create these flexible work environments handling it? All of that was a thing. Let me just wait until this is all over, or are they saying you got to go ahead anyway.
MG: I’m so disappointed to see the regression in our reentry arc. Like I think the long arc of work is going to bend toward an end of this episode of the epidemic. But I’m not unfortunately surprised at all that we’ve taken a step back. I saw the blueprint of that in some of the actions not taken, weeks and months ago. So, without going into a political rant, I’ll just sort of say, I’m not surprised, but empathetic. So what is that? So as we regress, as we take one step back to be followed, hopefully by two steps forward, what does that mean? Practically well, in California, a bunch of people that maybe were thinking that they were going to reenter might be sent back to home. I think in that realm that I defined as a flexible office, we have home and flex and HQ.
And flexible includes such things as the spaces that might be available to me on demand near home. That’s a type of flexible, a coworking space that I might book a desk at, or an office for a day or a meeting room provider that I might book for a collaborative session with the three of us, or a hub location where a team that can’t go back to the campus might co-locate, six of us for the next three months. When I say flexible office, I’m referring to things like that. What we have already seen in our business at LiquidSpace is a market uptick in incidents of individual employees for big name companies, including some of those that I’ve already mentioned today, who are coming to our platform and they are booking private offices for themselves.
What we have already seen in our business at LiquidSpace is a market uptick in incidents of individual employees for big name companies, including some of those that I’ve already mentioned today, who are coming to our platform and they are booking private offices for themselves.
And what that signals is they’ve concluded home doesn’t work for me, right? And I need someplace other than home, where I can do productive work. And we’re seeing enough individual office bookings to realize that the tell is probably they may have a disruptive environment. They may be too noisy, maybe too small. They may have a roommate or a spouse that’s working from home. And so I think here in this recovery interruptus stage, we’ll probably see more incidents of individuals and small teams as a part of larger companies who seek out and secure private spaces that can be their secure, safe environment that they can re enter into. Where they will, if it’s an office for one, I’m self policing. I’m not going to make myself sick. If it’s an office for six or ten that decide we need to come together in our little clubhouse, we’re not going to go back to the company’s office, where there are 10,000 people, because it’s been either shut down or densified by 90%, but this, but the six of us need to work together for the next three months on this really important project.
We’ll probably see more incidents of individuals and small teams as a part of larger companies who seek out and secure private spaces that can be their secure, safe environment that they can re enter into.
And we’re gonna, we trust each other and we’re going to observe conscientious behavior. We will self isolate ourselves if we think we get exposed. Well, so I think, we’re seeing that pattern to the private team space and private individual offices will be part of the remedy here during re-entry
All the more reason for companies to be flexible though, to have flexible options, because there is so much uncertainty and we just don’t have a clear picture of what this is going to look like. And when.
I think what’s going to be hampered in the short term by this regression is communal shared public environments are going to be less viable for the time being, so that shared portion of the coworking space or that lounge in the hotel will probably continue to be taped off, just as the malls and the restaurants and the bars are.
NFM: One last question, you said de-densification by 90% was happening in San Francisco.
MG: When I refer to the term de-densification, I’m referring to the elective policy of a company to self determine what amount of density they want to allow, or of users per square foot. They want to allow back into their offices and I’ll share with you that we’re seeing, broadly speaking or for larger enterprise companies who have taken a proactive position on this no less than 50%. And in some cases, as much as 90% de-densification, meaning they are, you know, if I built the campus to handle 10,000 people, I’m going to let no more than 5,000 and maybe I’m letting a thousand in to start.
And yes, multiple data points in that range of 50 to 90% de-densification in the Bay area and elsewhere, but certainly in the Bay area.