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Office Trendspotting at SXSW 2017

The SXSW conference and festival is one of the premier places to meet, learn and share ideas from people around the globe. The organizers cast a wide net across many industries to bring the latest trends to the forefront of discussion every spring in Austin, TX.

As a commercial real estate practitioner, it’s not only a great place to network with an audience of space users and influencers, but it is also a place to learn about workstyle best practices and the application of technology - both real and imagined - in business and the built environment.

Below are some of the most impactful themes from SXSW 2017 with an application to how and where we work.

Establishing an Office Culture Attractive to Top Millennial Talent Requires Honesty, Transparency and Authenticity

This year’s SXSW conference featured multiple workplace-focused panels and lectures, including a presentation on The Future of Work from Oliver Wenz of Cisco Systems, and keynotes from influential management thinker Adam Grant of The Wharton School and award-winning visual storyteller Cory Richards of National Geographic. An overriding theme throughout these sessions and others is the fact that to succeed in recruitment, professional development and office design, decision makers must emphasize honesty, transparency and authenticity.

Adam Grant giving the interactive keynote

Millennials see jobs as adventures and want to be fulfilled at work. They often view careers as checkerboards instead of ladders, and are at ease in seeking out the next best move. They don’t believe that just because a company has a foosball table and hosts happy hours on Fridays that it has a “culture.” This generation responds best when encouraged to break from individual comfort zones and face challenges as a team together.

What does this mean for workplace strategy and office design? Decision makers must respond to these demands by encouraging leaders to be visible in the workspace, ensuring adequate meeting and collaborative space, and fostering communication. None of which is necessarily new from a top-down perspective, but what is now readily apparent is how much millennials in the workforce demand these attributes from their employer. Space designers would also do well to take a page from the home-place, and make the break room the central gathering space.

Space for a DIY Work Experience Can Improve Employee Productivity and Professional Development

Several sessions and exhibits at this year’s SXSW highlighted how developers, governments and growing companies are responding to today’s “Do It Yourself” culture by establishing “Hacker” or “Maker” spaces that not only foster teambuilding and collaboration, but also allow room for tinkering and experiential learning.

The “Creating Space for Making in the Workplace” session, with speakers from IBM Design, Nike and Pinterest, broke down this trend directly. Despite many millennials never even being offered a shop class in high school, creatives from these companies discussed the enthusiasm amongst their employees for new office areas that allow them to get their hands dirty with silk-screening, woodworking, laser cutting, circuitry and other physical maker activities.

Do these specific workstations seem appropriate for every business? No, but the key takeaway from this session and the SXSW Create exhibition, featuring flight simulators, virtual welding, robots, 3D printing and other gadgets; is that there is a craving for a hands-on creating and learning experience among office users. In our ever digitizing world, physical exploration and sensory experiences are still important in the workplace as they foster experimentation, creativity and production. As tenants adapt their workplace strategy to meet these demands, landlords will also need to have a flexible attitude in the way spaces are built out and used.

Advancements in Transportation, Teleconferencing and Artificial Intelligence Will Continue to Alter Office Location Choices and Also Lead to the “Curated Commute”

From Uber to the Hyperloop to driverless cars, our optimism and expectations for transportation innovation seem to be at an all-time high. Several events at SXSW explored this enthusiasm, offering intriguing takeaways for decision makers.

The “Beyond Driverless Cars: Our Transportation Future” panel started from the position that a near future with driverless cars is not a question of if, but when. With this accepted, public and private panelists discussed the fundamental transformation of our transportation system. A future where most office markets may not require on-site parking may be coming. Or, we may be heading towards a future that involves less physical transportation, as virtual reality and telepresence equipment has reached a size and resolution that makes it feel as if the other person or team is in the room with you.

Of course, if you do move about, the combination of “wayfinding” apps and artificial intelligence technology will continue to raise expectations for commuters, as discussed during the “Wayknowing: The Future of Getting from A to B” session. You can already navigate the most efficient route through mapping services with notifications of traffic and construction delays, and you can have your coffee order paid and waiting for you at Starbucks. But your mobile device is quickly becoming an electronic concierge also; seamlessly and automatically suggesting where to stop for a bottle of wine that goes with dinner tonight or offering available tickets to a nearby performance when your calendar is open, selecting an artist by analyzing your Pandora preferences.

With technology enabling a curated commute offering ever more options to be informed and entertained, the isolated, amenity poor, suburban office park is likely to be even further removed from the preferred office location for today’s employees.

Living In a “Smart City” Is the Goal, But Means Different Things to Different People

Many countries and individual cities had an official presence at SXSW to recruit creative class movers and shakers. Moreover, they are promising the creative class great opportunities, solid infrastructure and a high quality of life. In the past, great cities were built from ports, but the future belongs to the city with the smartest, most forward thinking people. Given how easy it is to move around the world and work from anywhere, cities need to be more proactive than ever. For national and international occupiers considering expansion to new markets or corporate relocation, several representatives made compelling pitches on why their city offers the best combination of assets for your growing business.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock described the proactive approach his city is taking to use mobile apps, big data and technology to help automate city services; San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo discussed his Smart City Initiative to support his tech savvy residents’ expectations as “customers of government” and to bring innovative ideas and people into city hall; and Lafayette, Louisiana Mayor Joel Robideaux discussed initiatives his city is taking to offer fiber access for all citizens.

Because cities are not uniform in corporate diversity, talent pool or existing transportation infrastructure, there is not a uniform list of government services and urban assets public officials can check off to certify their home as a “smart city.” That being said, it’s clear that cities with elected officials responsive to technology and continued communication with constituents and innovators in the private sector are best-positioned to address the needs of growing office users.

SXSW made it clear that Smart Cities can also refer to a network of connected sensors, software and tools, all focused on the well-being of the people who live, work and play in a community. Building Management Systems will be smarter about frictionless, but controlled, access, assistance with transactions and automatically anticipating the need for a car or an elevator. Many companies are already employing similar artificial intelligence courtesy of the Amazon Echo installed in the office. Building designs are also being rethought to increase density. A dense, vertical development still requires thousands of truck deliveries every day to keep it stocked; one solution on display this year was from a company turning shipping containers into indoor farms, so they can be placed outside of a restaurant or store when the fruits and vegetables are ready for harvest.

In addition to the themes discussed above, the conference and festival offered meaningful insight on a host of other topics that will impact office preferences, including robotics, virtual reality, disruption in the healthcare industry, space and supersonic air travel, and the economic implications of marijuana legalization. For further details on these discussions, feel free to contact my direct line or stop by our office in the heart of Downtown Austin next time you’re in town.

SXSW is a fantastic and informative event for decision makers and forward thinkers within any business. I highly encourage you to join us next year in Austin.

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