The Power of the Pilot: A Low-Risk, High-Reward Real Estate Solution

Photo: Confidential Energy client pilot floor
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It’s no exaggeration to say that the en-masse work-from-home experiment accelerated by the pandemic could have lasting effects on the office similar to what 9/11 did to airport security. In the midst of this shift, our clients across industries are reexamining their real estate portfolios, and some of the most frequent questions posed to our workplace strategists have focused on what to expect in the long run:

  • How will the recent experience with working from home impact our real estate strategy moving forward?
  • Is this a temporary change, or will the honeymoon period soon end, with most employees asking to come back to the office full time?
  • If we embrace a hybrid approach, should our spaces fundamentally change, or do we just need to reduce square footage?

These are certainly uncertain times. And the stakes are quite high for those making real estate portfolio decisions that will affect organizational culture and performance for years to come. But in the face of this anxiety, there’s a low-risk and high-reward solution: the pilot space.

Why pilot?

Pilot spaces enable both clients and designers to test concepts about which they aren’t 100% sure, and then pivot if they don’t love the results. Pilot projects can save money, avoid undue stress, and provide countless lessons on what needs to be implemented to achieve goals.

Just think of the trial runs many people have personally experienced: 30-day streaming subscriptions, test driving a car, getting pets before deciding to have children, and vacationing where one may someday want to live. We are accustomed to trying things out before making big decisions in our personal lives, so why not do the same at the office?

With all indicators from recent research pointing to a hybrid future, including Gensler’s recent global workplace surveys and McKinsey research, it seems that the hybrid workforce is our new reality. So how might an organization test out a hybrid space? Here are some pilot examples we are currently exploring with our clients:

For new healthy workplace strategies, pilots are proving grounds

In preparation for a post-pandemic world, Armstrong World Industries (AWI) and Gensler have renewed their 20-year partnership to create a “healthy spaces” workplace strategy. With a goal of transforming their campus to serve as a leading model, a 10,000 square foot pilot workplace is currently under construction to beta test new health-focused solutions and emerging innovations in workplace design.

Four AWI teams will occupy the pilot space this spring, initially alternating weeks due to COVID-19 safety precautions. Gensler is leading a robust change management process to gather pilot participant feedback, measure workplace effectiveness, inform new product design, and identify strategies to transition the campus into a new age of adaptability beginning fall 2021. The pilot space will continue as a “living lab” space, furthering AWI’s corporate commitment to elevate wellness and sustainability.

Change management programs like the one Gensler is implementing with AWI often make pilots more successful than they would be in a vacuum. Such programs should include methods by which to measure satisfaction and performance. If schedules allow, it is helpful to gather feedback data two to four months after pilot completion to allow for people to adjust to new policies, spaces, and habits.

This June, I look forward to presenting alongside AWI as we share more results from this effort at the ACMP 2021 Global Conference.

Pilots can make real estate strategy changes less costly

Over the past year, Gensler worked with a confidential financial company’s global technology group as it tried to answer a difficult question: How do we know what level of mobility is best for us? At one of the company’s offices, this group was running out of space, so it needed to adopt a more flexible work model. At another office, curiosity took hold, and the group wanted to depart from the company’s historically conservative office layouts and experiment with a new environment.

To answer the question at hand, our team developed and implemented a mobility pilot for the two locations. For a company that has long embraced traditional workplace models, including private offices and assigned seating, this foray into unassigned seating and a nimble series of alternate space typologies was a dive into the deep end. The bold trial run enabled the group to get specific information on what environment is best-suited to its employees, culture, and goals.

Getting those answers has made a significant difference. At one location, the client decided to dial back significantly on the level of flexibility it had considered implementing. At the other, it decided to go in a different direction entirely because of new demands posed by the pandemic. No harm, no foul — just a better-informed company that can make future real estate decisions with the peace of mind that comes from having tested options.

Pilot spaces are a data enthusiast’s paradise

With more than 500,000 square feet in their local real estate portfolio and several leases coming due, another confidential organization decided to use Gensler’s WPIxSM Hybrid Survey as a first step, prior to committing to a pilot. Based upon survey results, Gensler will work with the client to identify a department willing to be a pilot participant. The program seeks to help the client understand the staff’s experience working from home and what they will expect from the workplace after the pandemic. Its goal is not only to test how a distributed and mobile workforce could function, but also to pilot the mix of individual and group spaces it may need.

Lease expirations are looming and the client anticipates that 50% of its workforce may be able to return to the office by summer 2021. We expect the pilot to yield important data by fall, thereby helping the client make long-term real estate decisions with confidence.

Lastly, pilots offer opportunity for both Gensler and our clients to experiment more radically than we otherwise would because the risks are much lower. Those who subscribe to design thinking will agree that prototyping a product or service is an important step that should not be overlooked before finalizing the solution. And what better time to propose a pilot than right now, on the heels of 2020 and the current state of economic volatility? Low-risk, high-reward opportunities are few and far between — and genuinely fun to pursue.

Editor’s note: this article originally appeared on