Sophie Schuller of Cushman & Wakefield discusses current workplace design challenges and where we go from here

March 30, 2023
As part of The Building Revolution industry-awareness campaign, EDGE Next and the Smart Building Collective recently sat down with Sophie Schuller, Applied Research Lead from global commercial real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield.

At EDGE Next, we understand that only 3% of the world’s buildings are sustainable — both in terms of human health and the environment.

In addition, the construction and operation of office buildings accounts for 39% of global carbon emissions while 85% of corporate employees feel disengaged and increasingly burned out from working longer hours leading to fierce competition for highly skilled workers.

Fortunately, there’s a huge opportunity for building stakeholders to not only reverse these trends, but also achieve real energy savings, optimize occupancy and greatly improve employee wellbeing with a minimal investment of time and resources.

That’s why we’re committed to reaching out to these stakeholders — CFOs, portfolio managers, facility managers, HR, etc. — and spreading the word across the globe: we have the technology to intelligently transform the industry through monitoring building performance and providing actionable insights.

To cover such enormous ground, we depend on a wide variety of partners, such as the Smart Building Collective and industry experts like Sophie Schuller, who leads applied research and insights at Cushman & Wakefield’s Living Lab. Ms. Schuller recently stopped by our office for a wide-ranging discussion on the current and future state of workplace design.

The following is a condensed version of our exchange.
You can watch the full video here.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Sophie. First off, what’s the situation after several months of easing Covid restrictions and back-to-work?

So many things, but I think first we have to stop talking about going back to work because it suggests that we’re going to revert to something that we previously had and that’s just not the case.

By every parametric measurement, we can see that that is not wanted, that’s not needed, and it’s definitely not what we’re in the process of creating. So, I think redefining this concept of the future of work as opposed to going back to work, from my perspective, is more helpful for all parties involved.

That said, a lot of the things that we are now seeing from a trend perspective or from a movement perspective aren’t new. Remote working is not a new thing that we just came up with during the pandemic. There were already big movements towards hybrid working, remote roles, more digital collaboration for people that are not face-to-face.

So, it’s not that it’s necessarily new, the newness comes from the fact that this is mass and universally adopted.

Can you tell us how you see things via this future-of-work framework?

We’re now seeing these requests and desires and personalities of what it means to be at work coming out on a population level, which is really exciting from a research perspective. However, it is incredibly complex from a commercial and operational perspective because we’ve got to organize these things somehow.

Specifically, the biggest focus for me, post-pandemic, is this concept of health being essential to everything. And whenever I talk about sustainability, I always say “what’s good for planetary health is good for human health”.

What’s an example of this in buildings and workspaces?

If you install effective air quality monitors in offices that are going to utilize less energy consumption, that’s still really good if I’m breathing in high quality air. That’s still going to improve my experience as a human being. And I think one of the things that the pandemic has really given us, if you like, is this appreciation of human fragility.

Putting a greater focus on the fact that we can only be these kinds of capitalistic, productive beings if the hardware works. I think for a lot of people, we’re seeing that the hardware doesn’t work or we’re running to fail.

As a result aspects of the built environment, including workplaces, could in fact be hindering, or at least not supportive of the biological processes that are necessary for us to be humans at work.

We want to talk about the right technology in a moment, because it exists! But for a moment, talk to us about the obstacles in overcoming current challenges in physically evolving the “97%” — as we often refer to the rest of the industry.

There is still this increasing disconnect between leaders of organizations and the rest of us. So, I think that’s one key element that we need to systematically overcome.

The problem being that you have very few people making decisions for the masses, so their biases come into play. For the last few years, we’ve seen a greater shift to employees being able to be more selective, thinking: “Well, I’m not going to work for this organization if I can’t do that in a way that reflects my values or fits me, my life and my needs”.

Of course, the economic crisis can potentially derail that, but that’s another slightly challenging issue.

What other areas do you see in need of improvement?

Another area is asset utilization. For example, why on earth do we have these highly expensive fixed assets that we use for eight hours a day, five days a week, and the rest of the time it’s just completely empty?

Whether that’s driven by financial motivations, environmental motivations, or people that have small children and then want to be able to go and do their work later at night because that suits their lifestyle. We have to start re-addressing the concepts of work — and life — in a way that makes better uses of all of the assets that we’ve already committed to.

And I think that concept, especially connecting to sustainability, is going to become increasingly more important for younger generations. Coming full circle, leaders today grew up in a world where the discussions on the climate crisis were at a very early stage. Today, younger generations learn about carbon emissions and the risk of fossil fuels at school. That creates two different lived experiences driving different values and arguably a misalignment between leaders and younger workers.

Ok, let’s talk about technology now. What role should technology play in all this?

I think we’re on this very interesting and slightly conflicted cusp of the next evolution, if you like, of real estate.

We were talking earlier about sensor technology that can now monitor how people move through space, but can also detect posturing — if I stand like this, the sensor technology knows I’m making a call.

What that enables us as workplace professionals to do, or real estate professionals, is to start evaluating what is really happening in this space.

I mean I can do an observational study, but number one, that’s very expensive to do at scale and it’s not particularly objective in some ways. But we can start using centering technology or any type of technology to start really evaluating and informing us on what’s going on.

So, how do we design appropriate solutions — even from a research perspective — that try to correlate or understand the correlations between human behavior, environmental qualities and how people move through space or the physical design of space? Once this technology is in place and available at scale across populations, the data can become predictive and thus we enter the beginning of the data-informed design era.

That for me is where it starts to get very interesting — this is at the forefront of technology.

About the Smart Building Collective
The Smart Building Certification is designed to award buildings that have the IT infrastructure in place to measure a building and behavior. But it goes further to include measures for optimization and innovation. The SMART Building Certification also recognizes and encourages Living Labs and the ongoing learning with our partners in top universities. We are here to help you achieve the smartest building possible and can advise you on moving your building or space to the next level.
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