ABOUT THIS EPISODE
Antony Slumbers, an expert on PropTech and space-as-a-service, discusses why the future of work is all about people, and how truly smart buildings enable us to develop the skills that really matter — our human skills for creativity, design, and empathy.
Jo [00:00:18] Welcome to the Future of Work Podcast by Allwork.Space. My name is Jo Meunier. And today, I’m really happy to be joined by someone who I’m sure many of you will have seen and heard at workplace conferences around the UK and Europe, the US and indeed many other locations around the world. My guest today is Antony Slumbers. Anthony has been a software development and technology strategist in commercial real estate since 1995. Now he consults and works with real estate boards on transformation, technology and innovation. A well-known speaker in property, he’s a globally recognized expert on PropTech and space-as-a-service, and today, he’s going to chat with us about all things technology, commercial real estate and the future of work. So welcome, Antony, and thank you so much for joining us today.
Antony [00:01:04] It’s a pleasure to be here.
Jo [00:01:07] Okay, well, let’s dive straight in. First of all, I’d love to hear about your career journey. So could you tell us a little bit about how you first became interested in real estate and technology and how you developed a career in PropTech?
Antony [00:01:20] Okay. Well the short version, because you might guess if you say you’ve sort of started something in 1995, this could go on for a rather long time. In 1995, I actually set up what was then probably the first commercial property website in the UK.
Antony [00:01:46] And for many years I ran what was effectively like a web agency. So we did websites or what they were then known as, Intranets, for many different in many different companies, lots and lots of different agents and that sort of thing.
Antony [00:02:03] In 2001, I actually set up a joint venture with Broadgate Estates, which was the property management arm of British Land, which at the time was the largest real estate company in the UK to develop a product called which we called Vicinity. And the idea of Vicinity and hence the name was the space, the space around us, and the idea was that in an office building, you needed to know everything in the space around you. And so the idea was to develop a suite of property management tools for helping in the running of office buildings. Now we call them tenant engagement platforms to inform people about their own building, but also everything that’s going on within the area, within the space around us. So I did that for a while and it was one of those deals where they could buy me out, which they did, which was very nice. Scooting on to 2013, I started thinking, oh, it’s interesting how everything’s turning, turning around again. So if you go back to sort of the 2000s, there was I that was if like not the birth of the Internet, whether it was really the sort of birth of the web. And it was the first big dot com bubble.
Antony [00:04:10] And I started writing about space-as-a-service six years ago. And the idea of space-as-a-service actually came out of the work we’ve done with Vicinity and the tenant engagement stuff. The idea of, this building and this space has to serve me. There wasn’t one. What do I need? When do I need it? And is the building going to help me? And to cut a long story short, I started doing more writing on that.
Antony [00:04:37] And then I started doing some ad hoc speaking. And then essentially that is what has really snowballed. History has come towards me, because space-as-a-service turned from being something no one ever heard about to really a big thing. And now I pretty much split my time between talking in interesting places, meeting interesting people and consulting, and advisory work. I do a lot of work with property management companies, landlords and increasingly more with institutions. Looking at what is the impact on technology, on fundamentally the nature of demand in the market, and therefore what sort of real estate should we be owning and investing in over the next five, 10 years?
Jo [00:05:33] Gosh. Well, that’s quite a fascinating career. And there’s still plenty more to come, I’m sure. So what’s your inspiration? What makes you tick? What motivates you to do what you do?
Antony [00:05:49] I actually have it in my Twitter header and it says ‘hashtag curious’. I’ve always, always been incredibly curious. And I like curious people.
Antony [00:06:08] I have a strange background because despite running a software company for 20 odd years, I actually have a history of art degree, which makes me one of those weird oddities between art and science. But I’m very interested in how technology changes the work people are going to be doing and therefore the type of spaces and skills and motivations and incentives and attitudes that they’re going to need to thrive in the future. So I’m sort of on the side of the human, but you really do have to understand this tech stuff as well. That’s the driver of a lot of change.
Jo [00:07:31] Yes. It’s pretty important nowadays, isn’t it? And you mentioned before that you worked on Intranet sites. Obviously, times have moved on a little bit since then. And you also discuss space-as-a-service. Now, that’s quite a common term nowadays. And I should think anyone who’s ever used an office for one reason or another can appreciate that technology is so important to enable the building and its occupants to have a more comfortable and productive experience. But the term itself, space-as-a-service is a little ambiguous to some. So in layman’s terms, can you give us an overview of space-as-a-service and what it means?
Antony [00:08:11] Space-as-a-service actually has two meanings. It initially came out of software-as-a-service. That sort of mindset. Because I’ve been working at a tech company, software-as-a-service became a really big thing in the early 2000s, and particularly when you got the rise of Amazon Web Services and these sorts of things. So then suddenly this idea that you don’t have to buy all your own kit and you can just stick your credit card in and Uncle Jeff will give you access to all the toys you could possibly imagine is a really big thing. Having something available as a service suddenly well, this is obviously happening all over the place because you started getting “as a service” pop up in other areas. So you have Netflix. Well, that’s movies as a service. Spotify,that’s music as a service. Uber that’s cars as a service etcetera.. . Well because all our information is in the cloud and we’ve got a 1980s 35 million pound supercomputer in our pocket that gives us incredible capabilities and essentially just has enabled this whole as-a-service world to develop. Why is real estate ever going to be any different? So there’s one side of space-as-a-service, which is all about procuring space on a short time basis — a day or a month or a week or whatever. I started thinking of it as a much wider, wider term because I rarely see this in terms of space that provides the services we need as we need them, regardless of how you procure them. So in my mind, space as a service has gone from something which would be a niche, or quite a big niche, to actually something that’s just going to be the defining characteristic of the workplace over the next 10, 20 years or so. But so much of that has got to do with the fact that the way we work has changed so much. You have a laptop, you have a phone, you have all your information in the cloud, and Wi-Fi everywhere now. And you just do what you want, wherever you want. And that completely changes the nature of how space needs to be designed. But also there’s this huge paradox going on. Despite there being a world of exponential technology, we are actually going to need to become better humans. And human skills are actually being made more important by technology rather than less. There was a sort of feeling that, you know, technologies just take over everything. And that would be the end. But the reality is the machines are good at what machines are good at. And fortunately, machines aren’t good at what humans are good at. But all the things that machines are good at are things that are structured, repeatable, predictable. And McKinsey read this thing a couple of years ago, about 49 percent of all the tasks that people are paid for across the world could be automated by adopting currently demonstrated technologies, not technology of the future, but currently demonstrating technology. But it’s actually not jobs that are going to change. It’s the task within it, within a job. So that 49 percent, that’s McKinsey talking about individual tasks people do as part of their jobs. And when you start looking at them, you realize that they are all the structured, repeatable, predictable tasks people do. And that’s what machines are good at. What do we humans do? Well, Picasso. This is where my art background comes in. He said computers are useless. They can only give you answers. And that is really where we are today that we have these incredible, incredibly capable machines, but they can just give us answers. They can’t ask questions. It’s for us humans to ask the questions. So the human work is design, imagination, empathy, intuition, abstract and critical thinking, social intelligence, judgment, empathy and all that sort of stuff. That is what we have got to get better at because it’s using those skills, which will enable us to ask the right questions. Well, what does our customer need? What would our customer like to do? What do they have? Or how much do they have to spend? How would they like to interact with this? All those questions are fundamentally human questions, but they’re human questions that need help in the process of discovery. So if you think back 10 years, not even 10 years, five years or frankly, some offices are still working like this — if you have 50 members of staff and you moved office, what do you do? 50 desks, 50 chairs, 50 computers, all in grey. Line them up and away you go. That’s a workplace because everyone’s stuck at their desks during doing that. But in this world where you’ve got to catalyze all these human skills in order to enable people to collaboratively and individually create great products and services, you need completely different types of space. Because in order to be creative, you need to be in the right environment. You have to be in a certain type of environment with a certain type of environmental quality of noise and temperature and light and design, and all these sort of things have a big impact on how we think and how we can work together. So you’ve got a fundamentally changing notion of what the workplace is is about that. But the bottom line is that to have a successful business in the future, you need all the machines and the technology to do the tasks which are structured, repeatable, predictable. And then you need the most highly skilled, most creative, most imaginative, most advanced humans. You’ve got to put them in the right places and you’ve got to pay extreme competence to the fact that their environment is going to impact purely on your bottom line. So it’s in actually everyone’s interest to create better spaces than we’ve been used to historically. And that fundamentally changes the whole industry.
Jo [00:19:14] And that’s where space-as-a-service comes in. And I remember you talking about the old work versus new work. You talked about that at GCUC in London recently, which is really interesting. But it’s interesting that, regarding discussions around technology and the future of work, a lot of the time we think straightaway of technology, robots, machines taking over jobs. But actually, it’s not about people, isn’t it, that really the future of work is all about people and it’s about enabling people, us, to be able to work better. But how does technology fit into that? So in terms of emerging technologies in the workplace, such as virtual reality and A.I., how will we begin to use those in the workplace in the future?
Antony [00:20:06] Going back to what machines are good at; the structure, repeatable, predictable. If you do have something structured, repeatable, predictable, you would do better to automate it yourself as fast as possible. If you don’t, someone else will. And besides that, there is no competitive advantage in not doing it. So it feels a bit unnerving. And this is why it’s not so much a people don’t like change, but people want change to be handled, handled well and need to understand why things are changing. Yes, that a lot of the reason you have to change is because it’s going to happen anyway. We’ll use technology to get rid of all the things that we spend half our time doing that we don’t need to do. When people talk about smart buildings, they tend to think about hardware and physical attributes. And they don’t really think about space and workplace and aesthetics and design and productivity and humans. That in my mind is the whole notion of a smart building. It’s a building that enables the humans within it to be as good as they can possibly be. The important part is understanding that this person during that time, during their hours in the office, spends 25 percent of their time in meetings of two to four people, 25 percent of their time doing quiet, focussed work. 25 percent of their time being rowdy and collaborative in larger groups and 25 percent of their time doing something else. Now to enable that the building needs to provide me with four different types of space, and those four different types of space need to be designed and tuned. If you think about it in terms of optimizing space, the space around you needs to be tuned to the demands of what that person needs to do at the time. So first off, we need to understand how our buildings are working. So at a very granular level, what’s the condition of that lighting and air conditioning? What’s the temperature? What’s the noise? What’s the air quality? That gives us a real understanding of our buildings and which meeting rooms are being used, etc.. And then you need to know how your building is actually being used. So where do people go? Where do they not go? Where is high density? Where is low density? Does that change at time of day? Does that change over the day of the week dole or the month of the year? So much of this at the moment is done on a hunch. So we need to understand how the buildings are being used and how the building is working. But then really importantly, we need to, within the real estate industry, start to understand our customers so much better. And this is where all of these things are moving up the chain from the flex space world because flex base pays a lot more attention to this, partly because it needs to because it’s sort of built into the business model. Because we are in real estate, we think companies need an office because that’s what we’re selling. But there’s no company that ever thinks, oh, I want an office. That’s not the job to be done. What they want is a productive workforce. And it just happens to be that historically they’ve used an office, but it’s not the office they want – it’s a productive workforce not to get a productive workforce. You have to understand what it is people do during the day so that you can provide them with the right spaces and the right environmental conditions. So that’s that’s where you get this wonderful crossover between really some quite hard core technology is going to be needed for a huge dollop of human human skills and capabilities, and understanding.
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Jo [00:29:34] But uhm, just what you mentioned a moment ago about flexible space and flexible space operators and this crossover with technology. It must take a lot of investment. So for those who were interested in implementing this type of technology and smarter buildings, how do you measure the return on that investment?
Antony [00:29:59] I think ultimately the returns are going to be measured in things like how many applicants do we get to our company? What’s the turnover? What’s the number of sick days? Even social media buzz about working for us. Actually, it’s really interesting. This is where real estate needs to become less of a silo, and more integrated into its customers businesses because a lot of the information you need to know whether all this work has gone an ROI will actually come out of H.R. departments. It will be in numbers like applicants for jobs, turnover complaints. Sick days. Injuries at work. I mean, even to an extent mental health, I mean it. I find it shocking how many stories we now hear about the percentage of people who have mental health problems. Now, whether that’s real estate related, or certainly not totally real estate related, but I bet there is some influence on the environments that people are in that causes this sort of thing. So one of the great opportunities of the flex mindset is actually to get real estate out of these silos. So In my mind, the really massive opportunity is if you start from the principle of forget about providing an office. What I am going to sell you is a productive workforce. I’m not going to sell you space. I’m going to say you’re a productive workforce. How are you going to do that? Well, I’m going to look after you, I’m going to understand your people and I’m going to understand their wants, needs and desires. And I am going to use this whole wealth of skills across six different domains to create a great user experience. And I will help you make your people as good as they can possibly be. Now, for these companies to make the most of their staff, their employees or their contractors or various stakeholders, they do need the right type of space. And in this new world, creating and curating a great user experience is really hard. And at the moment, there isn’t really anyone who — or there’s very few companies that can actually say — what we do is create a great workplace for you. But my feeling is that. Overall, within real estate, good companies are going to take less space, but they’re going to pay considerably more for it. And they’re going to be happy paying more for it because they’re going to get a much better product. And in my mind, it’s a huge opportunity.
Jo [00:37:08] Coming back to what we were talking about earlier with regards to human skills and the skills gap. There’s a lot of discussion around skills gaps at the moment. But I mean, this is nothing new. This has been going on for quite some time and concerns about keeping up with the development of new technologies at work. So what do you think is the solution to skills gaps, be it digital skills or any other type of tech skills? What do we need to do to equip the workforce with the right abilities for the future of work?
Antony [00:37:42] The most important thing is to not get stressed out or diverted by the idea that we must all be coders. What we do need is people to understand the digital world in the sense of, how does software work? How do they think in terms of developing the product? For instance, if you’re working at a tech company, that’s one of the first things anyone says to you is look, look at this. And they show a chart and it says, build, measure, learn, build, measure, learn, build, measure, learn. And the whole idea is you build something, you measure the outputs, you learn from that and you keep building it. Which is why no software is ever finished. Now the tech industry. The default is build, measure, learn. But in Real Estate the default is build. We don’t measure. We don’t learn. But that applies across the board of all of most things, you know. That there’s a whole range of general digital skills in terms of how to think, how to think of value propositions, how to think of things like jobs to be done, how to think of pains and gains as if there’s a thing called the value proposition canvas, which is very, very common in tech companies. Now the flip side of a lot of people not having those skills, of course, is their human skills are mostly pretty rubbish. You know, there is this terrible lack of empathy and awareness and critical thinking going on. It goes on in the tech world. So we need to breach these. We need to mix up all our silos. A lot more. We need to be thinking in terms of multi functional teams, because what we’re doing now is that anything that you can sell has got to be unique in some way. Otherwise they’ll just be commodities. How do you make something unique? Well, you need multi functional teams to work on it. You need marketing and operations and finance and all the different components of a company to work together much more closely in order to create great services. And that is part of the skills deficit that we have that we don’t do that. We don’t. We don’t think we’re not actually surprisingly bad at being collaborative. But this, you know, the skills thing is so, so important because of where we started at the beginning of this conversation, because the machines are going to automate anything that is structured, repeatable, predictable and half of our time, we are doing that. So. Whoever you are, you, if you need to develop your human skills, because that’s where we’re going to have value going forward, and that doesn’t really make any difference whether you’re a trainee lawyer or a senior partner, it’s the mission. But as I say, we are in a lucky position. As I said in the beginning the machines are rubbish at what we’re good at. But we need to be better at what we’re good at. And it doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it. And you have to be given the freedom to work at it.
Jo [00:46:22] Well, that’s definitely food for thought. And it actually leads us nicely into my last question. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the future of work, but there’s probably a lot that we can learn from the past, too. Well, can we? Because I have a quote from your website which says ‘The past is no longer much of a guide to the future’. So I was just interested to learn your thoughts about this or to give us some examples of how past lessons can inform how we build the future.
Antony [00:46:53] OK. Yes, I did like that. What I meant by that is that we have a terrible habit of digitizing the past. What happens far too often with technology adoption is that you have a company that works in a certain way and then it has access to some new tools. So what it does is take the way it works now and just translates those essentially into code as opposed to thinking, ah, I have these new capabilities now, which means we don’t have to do things like that. We could do things in a different way using this technology. So it’s partly an unnatural urge to digitize the past, which is dangerous. The flex mindset that we’ve been thinking about, as I say, I think is going to apply throughout the office market, certainly throughout the top half of the office market. So the way that we think about offices in the sense of, oh, well there’s always been demand for X million square feet a year, therefore, there always will be in the future — doesn’t necessarily hold true. Or we’ve always managed to let those types of offices and then in the future, you just might not be able to. So there’s quite a lot of that to think about. But in terms of being careful about the past is – again, going back to Jeff Bezos – he has a very interesting thing. When someone asked him, well, what are things gonna be like in 10 years? And he said, well, don’t think about what’s going to change in the next 10 years because you’re not going to know. You don’t know within 10 years, you actually do know what’s going to happen over the next two or three years, but not 10 years. But he says, don’t think of what’s going to change, what’s gonna stay the same. And so in his case, he says, well, customers are always going to want a great product, great service,great price and they’re always going to want convenience. That stuff’s not going to change and your customers are not going to change, wanting good service, a good product. But the whole definition of what defines what does it mean, good service and a good product? Those are the things I think you really need to pay attention to and always need to be thinking about. Just because that works now, will that work again in five years? And this is partly why keeping up with technology trends is really important, because if you keep up with technology changes, you have a better idea of what is changing quickly. So. Yeah, I think it’s really a case, as I say, of focussing on what doesn’t change. And that’s essentially that we are human and we all fundamentally like purpose, autonomy, mastery. But do not in any way rely on what you do now still being there in 10 years because the output might be, but the way it’s created absolutely might not be.
Jo [00:53:17] So we better get “googling” some training programs.
Antony [00:53:20] Exactly. Exactly.
Jo [00:53:47] Definitely. Fantastic. Okay. Well, it’s clear to me that the future of work isn’t just about tech and machines in the workplace, which is what I thought we would be focussing on at the start of our conversation. But actually, it’s all about people, very much about people and the work we do. And we’re on the cusp of some massive changes in the nature of our work, which in turn will reflect on the workplace itself. So that was a really fascinating whirlwind tour of the future of work. So thank you for that, Antony. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed having you on the podcast.
Can you tell us how our listeners can find and connect with you online?
Antony [00:54:39] Well, I’m obviously on LinkedIn — Antony Slumbers — or predominantly on Twitter. My handle is @AntonySlumbers or there’s my blog, which is antonyslumbers.com.
Jo [00:54:54] Okay, wonderful. Thank you for that. And that’s all from me today. So thank you for listening to the Future of Work podcast. And if you want to hear more, head over to Allwork.Space to listen to more episodes and to subscribe to future recordings. Bye for now.