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How The Pandemic’s Office Overhaul Hooked CRE On Strategy And Consulting

For a tenant rep broker helping a client find the right office space, the conversation used to begin with familiar questions about location, size and cost, but the shift in workplace priorities that has emerged in the pandemic’s wake brought with it a whole new set of considerations that can make or break a deal.

The pandemic supercharged the need, and market, for workplace strategy for corporate clients concerned about the new normal of remote work, a potential shrinking of their office footprint and the speed at which these changes take place. Brokerages, already attuned to a shifting office landscape, have seen significant potential in strategy, service and advisory roles.

Real estate brokerages have increasingly focused on services and strategic consulting.

Instead of jumping right into wrangling for the best deal, employers today start with a more nuanced set of questions: Is Chicago the right place for the firm? How would a hub-and-spoke model work with other Midwestern cities? Which neighborhood offers the best value and potential to attract a diverse labor pool? How would hybrid and virtual operations work? 

“Pre-Covid, you had some portion of the corporate population of clients going through change,” Newmark Global Corporate Services CEO Rick Bertasi said. “Today, everyone is changing, at the same time.”

In many ways, the timing couldn’t be better, Bertasi said. 

The industry has moved from dealing to advising, and he sees the next three to five years as a period of massive strategic shifts where corporations, wary of rushing or taking too many risks, will seek advice. In turn, brokerages see advantages in further broadening their capabilities.

“They not only want to be competitive in a complicated market, but they want to be nimble, they want to make sure that they can offer their clients a variety of services across the board,” Keller Augusta Senior Managing Director Kaitlin Kincaid said.

This shift appeared in large brokerages’ most recent quarterly results, although these advisory services aren’t always broken out as a separate line in profit and loss statements. CBRE’s Global Workplace Solutions segment, for example, posted $4.9M revenue, up 20.2% year-over-year (with profit up 33.4%). JLL saw $30M in advisory and consulting revenue, up 9% year-over-year. 

Coronavirus-era shifts in the office have created an environment where everything relates back to workplace strategy, CBRE Global Workplace Lead Lenny Beaudoin said. The office becomes a platform for work: Everything from HR to design, brand strategy and even food service is examined through the prism of the workplace. 

This reflects the way corporate structures have evolved, Gensler Strategy Principal Sonya Dufner said. Heads of real estate used to report up to the chief financial officer or chief operations officer, but now report to human resources or talent teams, a subtle but important shift in corporate thinking that places workers’ needs at the center of real estate decisions. This, in turn, means that real estate professionals need to speak the language of talent attraction and retention. 

“Service is such a huge part of a project now,” she said. “It’s not just build it and then the team is done. It’s much more about how we operate the space going forward.”

Brokerages have responded by bulking up their workplace strategy services. 

At Colliers, the transformation of corporate portfolios is likely to grow as a portion of the firm’s business over the next three to five years, the company’s Head of Client Experience and Executive Vice President Chris Zlocki said.

Even if a client goes from, say, 50K SF to 35K SF, recurring revenue from strategic consulting will lead to new revenue opportunities and transactions, he said.

For its part, Newmark has added to its team of roughly 100 consultants. 

And CBRE has roughly 800 people in its occupancy management team, two-thirds of which identify as workplace strategists, as well as a consulting team of roughly 500, with 350 of those trained as workplace strategists, according to Beaudoin.

Many large brokerages began integrating workplace strategy and consultancies into their platforms well before the pandemic, a result of the increasing complexity of the U.S. office, as well as a move by firms to outsource their real estate operations to third parties. 

Beaudoin sees the shift as part of the larger focus on labor and talent — and the related salaries that dwarf the cost of corporate real estate. Space is valuable insofar as it provides what increasingly valuable talent wants, so selling or leasing space today requires an intimate understanding of labor dynamics, markets and desires. 

“As organizations became more sophisticated, I would say real estate generally is moving to becoming more of a strategic advisory business,” Beaudoin said. “We're dispensing advice about how an organization can use real estate to drive its business, not just do deals.”

The smartest players in the industry pivoted to being strategic advisers, Beaudoin said.

“Paying for good advice and getting it right has a top-line impact to your business performance,” he said.