Pietro Martani, Senior Advisor at Colliers Italy, talks about the contamination between Workplace and Hospitality and the acceleration of the "flexible revolution" in the aftermath of the medical emergency.
How long have you been working in real estate for and how did you come to join Colliers?
I started working in the real-estate sector in 2003 when I set up a business which ran outsourced company accommodation services for a number of large consultancy firms. We furnished flats that were offered as alternatives to accommodation facilities and residences, with the aim of improving the quality of life of the consultancy staff. I've challenged myself with a wide range of professional experiences over the years, concentrating in the fields of accommodation services, restaurants and hospitality, events and offices.
I joined Colliers with the aim of using my entrepreneurial experience to contribute to the growth of the company, working with a range of teams to offer the perspective of a corporate client and provide creative spark. My focus remains creating a benchmark in the world of offices that draws inspiration from hospitality and sets out the tools and processes by which we can transform the workplaces of the future.
"Companies will have to provide people with more space, not just because of COVID-19, but also because of the paradigm shift offices are being called on to undertake. And spaces need to incentive people to not work from home."
Workspaces, hospitality and the process of contamination between the two: what are the core elements of this progressive, hybrid concept?
The hotel sector is influencing the world of offices on a number of levels: pop-philosophy, services and space design to name but a few. When I say “philosophy”, I'm referring to a conceptualisation of the service itself, the way it’s positioned and what you intend to do in the space. It’s a completely different mindset to the past, when the focus was on optimising every square metre in order to hit savings and cost-cutting targets. Current forecasts suggest that over the next five years, we’ll see 20-25% of spaces per capita recovered. So companies will have to provide people with more space, not just because of COVID-19, but also because of the paradigm shift offices are being called on to undertake. And spaces need to incentive people to not work from home. For companies, the preference is always going to be having their staff in the office rather than having them working from home – not so much so they can exercise control over them, but to promote the exchange of ideas, group work and efficiency.
The hybridisation of workspaces and hospitality can also be seen in physical spaces, particularly reception areas and communal areas in offices. These are evolving to provide services that are typical of a modern hotel lounge, for example.
According to this approach, workers are no longer subordinates, but individuals deserving of attention. In 2016, we coined a new term which perfectly sums up this paradigm shift: Worksumer, a portmanteau of worker and consumer. Just like clients can personalise their experience in a hospitality space, modern-day workers have now become consumers of a space, of an experience, in the office.
On the other hand, the world of work is also starting to influence the hospitality sector. In the coming years, we're going to see much more flexible working habits, and hotels represent an obvious network of spaces where work activities can be carried out. Lots of hotels are creating so-called “landing spots”, places where people can come and work or organise a meeting (even a small one), in an open-plan environment or in a smaller meeting room. Therefore, Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) spaces in the more advanced hotel and hospitality spaces are progressively evolving into spaces that are more suitable for day-to-day work.
COVID-19 has changed the world of work beyond recognition, accelerating the “flexible revolution” of workspaces which had begun before the pandemic. What are the pains and gains of this office evolution?
Companies are now seeing that they are having to manage a workforce that no longer operates to a set routine. The first issue, therefore, is how to manage remote workers, particularly with the introduction of new work tools. The second issue is the transformation of company cultures. Those companies that had a more open, osmotic culture, and that were better at valuing individuals and focusing on objectives rather than control, responded to the challenges posed by the pandemic more positively. Hierarchical companies built on controlling people and focusing on the number of hours worked in the office, on the other hand, were severely affected by the arrival of COVID-19. However, there is an immediate gain that corresponds to this particular pain: the hierarchical companies that went through those challenges finally underwent a cultural shift. These companies reorganised themselves to ensure that their people could access documentation anywhere, for example, thus enabling them to work from home. Allowing staff a certain level of freedom is one positive that COVID-19 will leave us. However, we mustn’t overlook just how important the social dimension is in terms of guaranteeing quality in the workplace and in life. Solitude can have negative impacts on health, creativity and innovation.
Another pain is represented by the fact that now that people have gained the right to work from home, and therefore to choose whether or not they undertake a journey in order to get to their place of work, will need to be especially incentivised in order to get them back to the office.
Companies will need to rethink the way they set out physical spaces in order to ensure they can compete for the best talents, taking their lead from the “Hub & Spokes” model – a concept featuring an attractive central office surrounded by other work points. From the perspective of real-estate owners, one of the pains is the fact that companies are going to be looking for more flexibility, short-term contracts, more services and versatile, ready-to-use spaces that can be adapted to suit their specific needs. For example, some companies are getting rid of the so-called “buffer” in favour of more agile spaces that are run by third parties. On the other hand, workspaces are going to be much more capable of attracting talent and putting individuals in a position to produce their best work. How? By becoming more attractive and more ergonomic, with more services, more green, more light and more of a focus on things like air, art and music. The other level to it is awareness: people want to work in a place where they’ll have the opportunity to learn something new, either from the people they're working with or from activities and events which are organised at the workplace. Financial packages are no longer the number one driver in terms of attracting talent. Instead, people are much more interested in knowledge and formative experiences that can be accessed through work.
"Financial packages are no longer the number one driver in terms of attracting talent. Instead, people are much more interested in knowledge and formative experiences that can be accessed through work."
In your experience, how do hybrid spaces serve as innovation incubators?
There are three ways. For the first, I want to draw on the Allen Curve theory, which states that people two metres apart communicate four times as much as people that are 20 metres apart. The upshot of this is that constant social distancing reduces communication – and one of the biggest priorities in organisation is to increase communication. There’s a syllogism when we talk about innovation nowadays: the more people communicate, the more they exchange knowledge and the more creative they are. The key to unlocking innovation is communication between different people. The second point is lateral learning. We don't just learn from the people that are in our department, who we speak to every day and that sit two metres away from us – we also learn from people who are physically distant from us. This means it’s necessary to create an environment where a single company is home to lots of different personalities. The third and final point is the concept of the ecosystem. An ecosystem is efficient where all production factors are present and easily accessible. One example of this is Silicon Valley, which is a strong ecosystem because all the various production factors are present at the same time: finance, knowledge, universities and widespread entrepreneurialism.
Which companies would you pick out as the pioneers of the “flexible revolution” before COVID-19?
Banca Sella is a very forward-thinking bank. Copernico worked with them to create the “Fintech District”, a building purchased by the bank for its new office space. However, the bank only used 2,000 out of the 7,000 square metres available for its own operations, leaving the rest open to the world of fintech. Copernico helped to build the ecosystem by mapping all the various fintech operators. We devised a programme of activities and events, bringing together experts, companies, start-uppers and financiers. The building quickly became populated by individuals who started to share ideas as part of a positive cycle. In this way, we created an iconic innovation and financial hub for Italy, with the bank occupying a central yet discreet position within it all. This is a really advanced example which focused on a sector which was very fragmented and hard to pin down, giving it a physical form. It serves as a catalyst for more conversations around fintech, offering a clear example of how offices really can become strategic drivers. The bank made great use of the real-estate income while – at the same time – placing itself in a high-profile environment, given that lots of big fintech names now gravitate around the building. Once again, it’s evidence of how offices have gone from being simple cost items to strategic assets for companies.
"At Colliers, for example, we help companies with strategic and organisational mapping, so they can develop offices that actually align with people’s needs in the short term and with company objectives in the long term."
What trends and influences from other sectors will contribute to the development of the “flex-office” phenomenon in Italy in the short term?
The Banca Sella is one example of a trend that I'm sure we’ll see grow significantly in years to come: offices ceasing to be seen as costs and starting to become strategic drivers.
A key sector is the management sector, where I'm seeing strong progress. At Colliers, for example, we help companies with strategic and organisational mapping, so they can develop offices that actually align with people’s needs in the short term and with company objectives in the long term. One of example of this kind of mapping is linked to stakeholders. If my strategy is, say, to make a company leaner, I'm going to need to strengthen the way I interact with people and create an office which is more osmotic and less closed off. That applies to everything, from location to design, dialogue with stakeholders and the physical expression of the space.
Based on your experience as an entrepreneur, what three attributes does a good leader need at these challenging, unpredictable times?
- A multi-disciplinary approach and a willingness to learn: successful entrepreneurs are people who are thirsty for knowledge and who use their time to study and learn. It’s an extraordinary time to be alive in this respect – you can get an MBA from MIT from your house!
- Ensuring good relationships with people and celebrating individualities: it's important to understand people’s true aims, even if these are not expressed or perhaps unknown to them. You need to be able to reconcile organisational requirements with individual needs.
- Perseverance: doing business nowadays if very difficult, and the margins have been reduced. If you don’t have perseverance and you just think you're going to be successful quickly, you're going to find it tough.
What was the first entrepreneurship lesson you learned? Is there a particular entrepreneurial figure that inspires you?
I've learned that you need to be humble and not just stop once you've come up with one idea. Having the humility to keep putting yourself out there eventually turns into a modus operandi and a key principle underpinning the culture of an organisation.
One figure I've studied and watched with interest is Adriano Olivetti. He’s built a company which is the global leader in its sector and employs over 30,000 people. Seventy years ago, he implemented things that still feel innovative to this day. Yet Olivetti was also a politician, in the sense that he was interested in public service. When I was at university, I was part of the European Federalist Movement. Olivetti was an important driving force in terms of setting the EFM up. He was one of the first entrepreneurial figures I crossed paths with who came at things from a different perspective, politics in this case. I later found out that he’d built an osmotic culture within his company, with a focus on the public sphere. There were strong links between the public and private spheres, including a clear focus on people and large, ergonomic offices with a series of services such as nurseries and comfortable accommodation for workers. Underpinning the whole thing was a holistic approach to people.
The company built by Olivetti used a model which is now becoming held up as a benchmark, with things such as beauty, art and design at its heart.