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Are offices dead? Not yet, but real estate power brokers are betting on a new strategy

Alums of real estate juggernauts Cushman & Wakefield and JLL are betting that the future of commercial real estate lies in not just selling office space, but designing and building it, too.

Are offices dead? Not yet, but real estate power brokers are betting on a new strategy
[Image: Unispace]

With the pandemic placing a large question mark over the future of offices and commercial buildings, two leaders in the world of commercial real estate are making a pivot that could show how the industry might adapt. They’re betting that the future of office real estate lies in not just selling the office space, but designing and building it, too.

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Steven Quick, who has spent the past seven years as a top executive at commercial real estate giant Cushman & Wakefield, and Michael Casolo, who’s worked at JLL, Cushman & Wakefield, and the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, have just joined the global workplace design-build firm Unispace. The company, which has designed and built out offices for companies including Airbus, Sonos, Michael Kors, and the Salvation Army, is a new kind of one-stop shop for office real estate. Founded in Australia in 2010, Unispace has grown to 46 offices and design studios in 25 countries. Quick will be the company’s global CEO, and Casolo its chief revenue officer.

Steven Quick [Photo: Unispace]
Though the office business may not seem like a particularly healthy market at the moment, Quick says the turbulence brought on by the pandemic means that companies are going to be needing a lot of help figuring out the future of their offices. “The timing might seem sort of counterintuitive,” he says, “but I think we’re going to see a lot of companies looking for answers on what does the post-COVID workplace look like.”

Michael Casolo [Photo: Unispace]
Casolo, who’s a licensed architect, says executives are going to begin to realize how important office design is to how their companies function. “If you think about what the user occupies, the things that most greatly influence the end result [are] the strategy, the design, and, ultimately, the execution of the design—everything from the construction to the furniture to how the space is set up,” he says.

But the traditional commercial real estate business has been much more disjointed. Casolo says a company looking to open an office would typically hire a consultant to develop its workplace strategy, then hire a broker to find the space and an architect to design the space, then a project manager to line up the contractor to build it. Unispace’s approach pulls it all under one roof. “Strategy, design, and execution are all together. You have far greater control,” Casolo says.

This level of control is especially important now that companies are moving from the initial shutdowns to the interim office adaptations to considering dramatic changes to the way their offices look and operate, Quick says. Unispace estimates that companies are going to be wanting 20% to 30% less office space when the pandemic is brought to heel. Working with one organization to make these adaptations means companies can rethink their offices more quickly, and more easily implement changes as conditions evolve.

“We’ve all seen the arrows on the carpet and the yellow caution tape across every other workstation, but that’s probably not the most elegant answer for the future,” Quick says. More companies will begin to transition to longer-term solutions that require new designs and new, smaller spaces. And commercial real estate companies like Unispace that can both design and build will be able to tap into that market. It’s an approach, Quick says, that may become a new standard for how the commercial real estate business works. Whether others follow this model as the pandemic drags on remains to be seen.

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“Even in this last 10 days, we’re starting to see clients clearly making decisions around that third phase of what’s the workplace like post-COVID,” he says. An early trend he’s seeing is companies wanting to reconfigure what were single workstations into bigger areas for the type of collaboration that can’t be done well by people working from home. “We believe, and we’re starting to see, that design and workplace strategy and build-out is going to be a real opportunity as people reconfigure the square footage that they have.”

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