Brett Abrams, Global Head of Portfolio Administration at Cushman & Wakefield joins host Bart Waldeck to discuss how the impact that the pandemic has had on leases, from reactive approaches in 2020 to a new perspective that companies have focused on taking a more proactive approach to portfolio administration and lease administration to ensure future preparedness.
Hi everyone, and welcome to Workplace 2.0, our podcast series about today’s rapidly changing workplace. I’m Bart Waldeck, your host for this journey. You may be wondering why we launched this podcast series. Well, none of you would argue that we’re at an inflection point with respect to the workplace and its future, and that the pandemic has fundamentally altered how and where we work. Our goal with Workplace 2.0 is simple, distill the mountain of information and data available into actionable insight that you can use to plan the safe return to the office, navigate and learn during the initial reentry period, and then reimagine your office of the future. We can’t do this alone, so we’ll be sitting down with industry experts and other thought leaders to bring you as much information as possible. As a company, we’re going through the same process as all of you, so we might as well share our own ups and downs so you realize you’re not in this alone. It should be an interesting ride. Buckle up.
Welcome everyone, to Workplace 2.0. I’m Bart Waldeck, your host as usual. We have a great episode lined up for you today. And, as I think most of you are aware, we’ve focused in the near term on Workplace 2.0, of looking at three discrete stages that many companies are going through today, as we prepare to emerge from the pandemic and hopefully get back to the new normal, whatever that might be.
First, being planning the return to the office. Many companies are still in this stage of the process. Stage two is really when we actually return and start learning what work will be like, and then I do consider that a learning phase in the initial return to work. And then, ultimately planning for the office of the future, under a new, more dynamic type of work environment.
Obviously, there are a lot of threads of real estate, design, construction, leasing administration, lease accounting, facilities maintenance, space management woven throughout all of those three different stages. One area we want to focus on today really relates to the lease side of things. We have queued up a fantastic guest to join us here, to give us a perspective on the change in how people are managing their leases through the pandemic and emerging out of the pandemic, so I’m really excited to introduce Brett Abrams, global head of portfolio administration at Cushman & Wakefield.
Brett, welcome to Workplace 2.0.
Perfect. Happy to be here, Bart, and happy for the great partnership that we’ve had with Tango over the years.
Yeah, it’s been great, I think for everybody. Why don’t you just maybe kickoff by giving a little bit of background on yourself, and your role there at Cushman?
Certainly, happy to. Brett Abrams, I’m the global head of portfolio administration for Cushman & Wakefield. I have been at Cushman for the last eight years, about to celebrate my eight anniversary.
And, have been really managing our portfolio administration group for the last two to three years, in different functional roles. We’ve got about 500 employees globally, manage over 160,000 properties for almost 400 different clients. We have had a heavy focus on the data management and financial management of leasing activity, and have tried to be good partners to our clients certainly, over the years, in terms of helping service their portfolios.
Yeah, absolutely. You guys, it’s a massive portfolio when you think about it in aggregates. I think that’s one of the benefits of having you on, is you’ve got a broad perspective of different situations, scenarios, different real estate types, different lease types.
Happy New Year by the way, I didn’t get a chance to say that. Although we a month in right now, right? And freezing. Both Brett and I are in Chicago, so single digits, I think, today and tonight, and some snow falling. You know, the pleasures of a Chicago winter.
Absolutely. No, it’s pretty cold. I had to go get gas for the snowblower over the weekend. It’s a typical Chicago in February.
I keep thinking I don’t need one. I think I was in Home Depot two weeks ago, and it had yet to hit us with snow, while up to a couple weeks ago. I’m eyeballing the snowblowers and I’m like, “It’s late January, I’m almost there. I don’t need it.” Of course, I failed to look at any of the weather, and the next week we got slammed.
It’s a good segue, because I’m using it as part of my New Year’s resolution to try to get in shape, like I do every year. A month in, I’m feeling pretty good but ask me in mid-March. Shoveling has helped the cause. I’ve got my little Apple Watch out there, shoveling. But, that is a segue to the first question I have for you. The corporate real estate industry, obviously we’re going through a lot of change, things we’ve never had to wrestle with before. Figuratively speaking, what New Year’s resolutions have your clients undertaking in 2021? What’s top of the list for them?
Yeah. I think the key was in 2020, everything was reactive. The pandemic hit and it’s how do we close down the office and get people safe, how do we start tracking them, how do we start thinking about some sort of careful and small return to the office, everything was reactive. It felt like the year turned, vaccines are coming out, treatments are better, people understand how to handle this thing and clients have turned to the proactive measures. Where we’re starting to do portfolio planning, we’re starting to look at what parts of our services didn’t work or did work during the pandemic and do we want to expand on them.
I can tell you, we’ve never been busier at this time of year. Normally, it tails into February, March, when we really get busy from a business development standpoint. We have more clients coming to us, trying to outsource portfolio administration services, than ever before. I think they saw what happened during the pandemic and realized that this was an easy way to go mitigate risk, an easy way to get an outsourced provider involved. That is, seeing our clients be more proactive. What more can we do? How can we get better data? How can we get data that tells us more, and helps us plan and anticipate, and grow, and change more frequently? What we’re really seeing is that proactive stance from our clients.
Yeah. It’s interesting, we’re actually seeing it on the software side for us as well. Where, in the past, maybe they out-muscled it, or they thought it’s a part time job, we don’t have to really think about it. And then, boom, the pandemic hits and they’re like, “Where are the leases? What are our rights? What can we, what can we not do?”
“We’re not even in these stores, why are we paying for them?” It’s given a lift to our business, and it would make sense that you guys are seeing the same thing on the outsourced side.
Yeah. And really, what it comes down to is no one saw the pandemic coming, but the idea of natural disaster or global issues wasn’t totally foreign and clients were not prepared.
We field over 100 different client request, so almost 25% of our clients, had to go back and re-abstract data. They needed to know option clauses, landlord contact information, sanitation and maintenance clauses in their leases, opt-outs, things like that, that they simply weren’t prepared for.
In May, and June and July, we were going back through portfolios trying to provide our clients with that information so they could make the best decision possible. As I talked about a few minutes ago, when it comes to the proactive nature of what clients are now trying to do, really what it is is portfolio administration and lease administration data, as a whole, is starting to become part of business continuity planning.
As we’ve seen this natural disaster, the COVID-19 Coronavirus become a part of our every day lives, it’s more a question of not if but when something like this strikes again, we don’t want to be caught off guard, we want to have a plan in place for this. A lot of clients have it in place for specific sites. You’ve got disaster recovery, you’ve got data server recovery, things like that, but you’ve got to have a plan in place for, essentially, how do you shut down a portfolio in a time like this and be proactive in that response.
Yeah, I completely agree. We’ve seen similar types of things. The overused word that’s out there I keep hearing is resiliency, which is a legit word, but you need to be a resilient organization, part of that is being able to plan for the next whatever it may be. Hopefully nothing on this scale, but absolutely.
With these folks wanting to dig into their leases and figure what’s going on, obviously everybody’s been in a holding pattern since COVID hit. Everybody was away from the office. One of the main themes right away was around survival, quite frankly, for some and occupancy cost is a big enterprise expense. It immediately probably rose to the top of the CFO’s list, or one of them that they could look at. I think a lot of people did some creative negotiation and other types of things, when everything went down. What kind of savings have people been able to get? And, have they exhausted the savings opportunity, across the board, or is there more meat on the bone?
Yeah. I guess, the positive thing about this is it seemed to affect everybody, it wasn’t just on the occupier side, it wasn’t just on the landlord side, in some of the way we saw some of the disparity in ’08, ’09. What this really does is it changed everybody’s perspective on space and real estate.
However, if you take a look at this from a macroeconomic standpoint, this thing started really in the United States in February, March 2020. We’re in February, March 2021, and vaccines are out, and rates are going down, and it feels like we’re starting to turn the corner. If you look at that, in terms of the broad portfolio perspective, most leases, you’re talking about three year, five year, 10 year leases for significant office assets, this is a blip within the context of a long real estate lease. So the question that keeps coming in is, how is real estate going to change? It undoubtedly will, but for the most part within a reactive state of how much savings can we achieve, how many nickels can we find under the couch if we really squeeze on our real estate.
Our occupiers haven’t gone all the way to one end or the other. They’ve worked with landlords, landlords have, for the most part, been very reasonable, and certainly worked together to find amicable solutions and those that are the relationships that are going to last a long time. The ones that are really trying to prosper off of this, or the ones that are being aggressive or unreasonable are the ones that, I think longterm, are going to have some difficulty. It’s still a relationships business, it’s still about partnerships.
What we have found is yes, obviously there’s some dials that companies have turned to find savings but it hasn’t necessarily dynamically changed how they are viewing real estate yet.
Yeah. What I’ve consistently heard folks talk about is you see these articles, CFOs saying, “Well, we don’t need any real estate at all,” and salivating at the opportunity to cut that kind of cost. But, as the pandemic wore on, I think that more and more people realized that there still will be an office, it’ll be probably a different type of office. But, the need for space, the need for culture and collaboration face-to-face isn’t going away any time soon. And then, there’s a work from home fatigue that has set in for many, I think, and they’re looking forward to getting back to the office.
Yeah. And look, if you Google you can find whatever viewpoint you want to make, depending on what role you’re in. You could obviously say, “Yeah, we didn’t lose productivity during this pandemic. Why do we need to pay for office space?” And then, you could look at another article that talks about 54% of people feel less connected to their company and their colleagues than they did pre-pandemic. Then, you could look at another article that says, “Hey, we can shrink space by 20, 25 percent.” Then, there’s another article that talks about how we went so hard for densification over the last 15 and 20 years, and did it have an effect of sanitation, and health and wellbeing? Maybe now we have to decrease our densification and increase square feet per person, and things like that.
Do I think it’s going to have an effect? Absolutely. I think that things like travel, things like corporate events, those are going to be down for a while.
But, do I necessarily think that there’s going to be companies that go 100% virtual, for the foreseeable future? I think it’s going to be small. I think that it might change the balance a bit, and there might be ways that companies try to build in flexibility, but I don’t think, at least from I’ve seen talking to large occupiers, none of them are abandoning the office permanently, trying to save that cost. They still think it’s a worthwhile investment.
Yeah, I would agree. Something you had mentioned just a few minutes ago gave me a thought. You’ve seen, would you classify it as an improvement in collaboration, communication between landlords and tenants? Or, is it status quo? And the other question, piggybacked on that, it’s not always been a great relationship, often times. One party tends to hold some of the power over the other, depending on the circumstances and the size of the portfolio and the landlord and so forth. But, have any of those dynamics changed? Is communication better, has the dynamic changed? What’s happening to the relationship?
Yeah. What I would say is what this pandemic has done, whether it’s on the personal or professional side, is it’s brought out a lot of our worst tendencies, in some areas. That doesn’t necessarily mean landlords and occupiers are cats and dogs fighting, I think for the most part it’s been reasonable. But, there’s uncertainty and with uncertainty, sometimes you can go hard aggressive, you can try to take advantage of the situations. For the most part it’s been fine, and for the most part, clients have paid their bills and landlords have provided the services required to services the facilities.
It’ll be interesting when we get into things like cam reconciliation, and base years, and things like that, as we go into this year. I actually think 2021 is when you might see a little more bifurcation between landlords and occupiers, as to how they treat each other. 2020, everyone was in survival mode and how can we partner. I think 2021 might turn the tide a little bit the other way.
But that remains to be seen, I hope not.
Yeah, exactly. What about in the return context to the office, and safety at a building level? Or, at a tenant level? Is there a clear line between what is a landlord’s responsibility and what’s a tenant’s responsibility? Or, is it building specific, lease specific, all that stuff?
I think there’s an overarching sentiment that everybody has to do more. I have been approached by a number of providers, trying to provide things like healthcare data of your employees, and overall engagement and satisfaction. It’s on the employers and the occupiers to take care of their own workforce.
It’s also going to start to be table stakes for landlords to bring the sorts of innovations for their own buildings. Smart buildings, health screening buildings, sanitation, maintenance, et cetera.
Air quality, exactly. What it’s going to do is it’s certainly going to up the game of requirements for landlords. But, I also think it’s going to be critical for occupiers to be taking advantage of that, and making sure that everybody, their employees, are set up the right way. I think it’s going to go into every site selection requirement for most major occupiers, moving forward, as to what is the health and sanitation requirements of these buildings and these spaces.
Yeah, that’s true. Just the thought of air, whose responsibility is it to have the air? It’s just hard to wrap your head around. But, I do think building management systems or other technology, I don’t think it’s going to be quite as space age as some folks think it will be right away because that costs money. We haven’t even been able to climb the IoT sensor hill, most companies don’t want to necessarily make that investment, although prices are coming down. I think it’s all for the better, and there is really no choice as you said, everybody’s got to pull their weight more.
There’s also no silver bullet. There’s nothing that’s going to prevent something like this from getting into the office when it’s built on human behavior. But, I think there’s a general sense of different behaviors moving forward. If you’re sick, don’t come to work. Every room, every surface is going to be looked at in a different lens, as to what can landlords do, what can occupiers do, or service providers do to make it more safe. Whether it’s the new technology with door handles, whether it’s having a sanitation station every X number of feet, there’s going to be new requirements that will be innovative for sure. And then, you get into the super advanced scientific stuff, the MERV-13 filters, and the things that go into air quality systems, and infrared cleaning, and things like that, that really, really go way overboard.
But, it’s going to be a thought process for every lease negotiation in an office space, for the next five years. There’s no question about it.
Is there the typical … If you believe that we’ll move to more collaborative space and less dedicated put-your-head-down space in this dynamic environment, and people would be coming and going. And half the team will be in a conference room on the video conference, several team members will be at home potentially, or at a coworking site. There’s going to be a lot of moves, adds, changes, if you will, a lot of remodeling that would potentially need to be done when we better understand what that all means. Are landlords prepared for that? Is there going to be TI involved in it? Whose going to bear that lift? Is it going to be joint, maybe rolled into a new lease and baking it all in, and tying people up for longer timeframes?
That’s the question. You’re going to have landlords that have to invest money in their buildings, in some respect. It may not be 100%. Then, you’ve got occupiers, and I just talked about flexibility. You’ve got occupiers that are going to want to do more short term, and more optionality in their spaces, to be able to get out from under something like this in the future. You’ve got two divergent paths there, but both have to care about the safety of their workers.
What you’re talking about is a dynamic that I think we’re going to see go hard one way or the other in 2021 and beyond, is whose going to win that battle. Is it going to be the landlords ponying up and investing in their buildings? Is it going to be on the occupiers? Is it going to be part of TI? Is it going to be part of optionality? Do you get better health and safety standards for longterm leases? Those are the questions our brokers are going to be facing every day.
I think it’s still a little bit too early to tell. That might be a little bit of a cop out answer, but I think there’s going to be real dynamic shifts in terms of how we look at investment in health and safety of these buildings for sure.
Well, it’s interesting you brought up CAM or OPEX. If you have to invest in all this technology and its common shared infrastructure, that’s going to roll down into pro-rata expenses, I would think.
Well, it certainly should, by the letter of most leases. But then, there’s going to be a question as to what sort of sign off privileges do your occupiers have on that sort of investment.
Is it something they really signed up for? Is there regulatory considerations to be made? What if an occupier doesn’t want to invest in that technology? What if, for instance, they don’t want the temperature of their employees taken every day via a sensor in the roof? There’s real data privacy concerns that come into play with some of this stuff as well. We’re all for health and safety, but there are other trade offs that I think are going to come into play as well, as we start thinking about how do we implement some of these technologies.
Yeah. I know you can’t talk about specifics, but how are these dynamics playing out economically in rents, and things such as that? Initially it was, “Oh, everybody’s going to move out of the urban areas, and we’re going to go to these satellite offices.” Have we seen a shift in some of the economics of rent, as a result of this?
Not yet. I do know if you had a lease that was coming up in March or April 2020, you probably haven’t found your new space yet and you’ll get a pretty good deal, with the ability to shop around. But like I said, for the most part, this comes within the context of a current lease. You’re talking about, in a five year lease, thus far you’re one of those five years into this, and it probably expires at two of those five years where you’ve had a real major impact.
There’s going to be certain markets that have broader impacts than before. Strong markets are going to remain strong. Markets that were starting to waiver from a talent perspective, from an economic perspective, probably do waiver. And, I think it’s more about economic recession, unemployment, things like that, than it really is actually about the pandemic. What it really does is it’s that same theme, whether it’s with people, or whether it’s with specific markets, it shows the cracks very easily, as to what works and what doesn’t work.
If it’s a hot market, like an Austin, Texas right now, if anything that’s where the great talent is going to try to relocate to and try to expand. If you’re in a market that isn’t so hot, or has been struggling from a talent perspective, or struggling from an incentives perspective, that’s going to show.
Yeah. It’s interesting, I remember reading with all this flight from Silicon Valley, and everybody’s moving to Colorado, and Utah, and all these things, the argument about … and I know this isn’t related, really, to what we’re talking about, but it’s interesting to me, how it’s changing different salary levels for the same position in different geographies. Theoretically, you’re in a lower cost center, New York City you’re going to get paid different for the same job than you do in Springfield, Illinois. All that stuff plays into the dynamics of rent and other things that eventually will happen, so it is quite interesting.
There’s no question, and it plays into the big occupier have to have that talent strategy. We’re not at a place, even at Cushman, where five years ago we might have paid for someone to be in New York and we won’t pay for that specific position to be there anymore because we’re smarter about what markets we’re in, we’re smarter about where our workforce is employed, what sort of talent we want.
I think beyond even a data strategy coming out of this pandemic, a talent strategy is what a lot of clients are focused on. Which is, where am I going to get the best talent for what I’m willing to pay over the next five or 10 years? It’s been at the top of everyone’s mind, but now that they’re through the pandemic I think it really becomes important. Because we’re starting to see turnover, too. We’re starting to see attrition, we’re starting to see natural attrition. The economy’s starting to open up, people who haven’t been in the office or been with their colleagues for a year are feeling disconnected, and probably have a little more time on their hands given they’re not commuting, to start looking in the market. Start putting out feelers, putting out calls. I think a talent strategy is going to be critical for almost every company over the next year or so.
Yeah. The race for talent, employee experience in our industry, as you know, has been talked about a lot over the last several years, but I totally agree that the rubber’s finally meeting the road.
Not just you’re Google, you’re Apple, you’re Nike and you’re fighting for the best people and your facilities help drive a lot of that, and the campus and stuff like that. But now, it’s going to be flexibility, dynamic workplace, I can live where I want, all that stuff is going to come to the forefront. And then, there’s also the reality of the consumerization of employees, so the apps that are developed now.
I know us, as an IWMS provider, we theoretically could become back office. We execute the move, we execute the maintenance activity, but the front end employees are either using a mobile app from us or someone else and need to have a much more integrated technology strategy to fuel the office of the future.
Yeah. There’s no question that companies are looking at waste. They’re just looking at parts of the process that haven’t worked, don’t work, can be optimized via an app, going down to level four and level five processes, et cetera. What you just talked about, which is the back office classification, a lot of clients and a lot of companies are going to front, middle, back arrangements of how they look at their staff. There’s lot of providers that were ahead of that five or 10 years ago, but now it’s really front, middle, back automation.
Automation is becoming a key thing in what every company does. Whereas something used to be, 10 years ago, used to be back office, how do we offshore, how do we outsource it, really now it’s how do we automate it. What’s the investment we’ve got to put in today, that saves us 10X, 20X, compared to an outsourcing or offshoring strategy?
Yeah. Well like you said at the top, I think a lot of people are A, realizing that real estate needs to be managed more proactively, which has helped your business. And you guys, through technology and everything else you’re doing, you can put the screen up or put the curtain up and say, “Don’t worry about what’s happening back here, necessarily. We’re taking care of that. But, here are the key metrics, here’s what’s happening across your business from a real estate perspective,” and have that integrated view for your portfolio companies that you’re managing.
Yeah, there’s no question about it, technology’s going to continue to play a role. It already has and it already was, but not it’s about speed, it’s about efficiency, metrics tracking, things like that, that have become table stakes for how real estate providers are providing services to their clients.
It’s less about differentiation, the way it was a couple years ago, and now it’s we’re expecting this to be an integrated part of how you deliver service. When it comes to the robotics, and automation, and machine learning, what clients are really asking is what are you doing that you can help teach us, and we can think about conceptually in other parts of our business? We’re not just here to execute real estate transactions, we’re not just here to abstract your data out of a lease, we’re here to show you these are some of the technologies that have worked for us within the context of our providership. And, let’s start thinking about ways that it might help and affect your business, because we’ve had success with it.
That’s part of being an innovator in the industry, is being able to share your great ideas with your clients.
Are you seeing the landlords wanting to jump on board and participate in use of technology that either you have, or your clients are using themselves? Is that too far away?
I think they’re a little further behind, especially when it comes to some of the data management, machine learning, analytics. I’m not a buildings expert per se, so I can’t speak to some of the sustainability or the healthy and safety technologies, but I can say that landlords have lesser needs, from a data perspective, than occupiers do. When we abstract a lease for a landlord, it’s normally 30 or 40 data points, for an occupier, it’s normally 150. So there’s a little bit less of a need to make it more efficient, or rely on technology in the same way that occupiers do.
That being said, everyone needs data, and everyone needs reliable data to be able to act on for their business. From that perspective, landlords haven’t let up in terms of what they expect from a data perspective.
It’s interesting. I know on the large landlords on the retail side look at assignment, or general growth or others, they can be very sophisticated obviously.
I don’t know if it’s more on the office occupier side, where it’s a little more fragmented maybe, that the sophistication isn’t quite there.
Yeah, it’s certainly going to vary market to market, landlord to landlord. You’re absolutely right, those that have capital and are sophisticated have different levels of service than what you might see on the small landlord office side. But that being said, I think we’re generally more sophisticated than we were five or 10 years ago and that will continue, no question about it.
Yeah, exactly. I know things such as reporting sales in a percent rent type situation, or correspondence between the landlord and the tenant so you’re on a common platform, those types of things. How do I say it? We’ve seen a more willingness on the landlord side, if it’s valuable to them, if it makes things quicker and better, they’re willing, usually, to participate if they have the sophistication to do so. You still have some Mom-and-Pops who you’re on the phone and sending emails and stuff.
Especially if there’s no additional investment required from the landlords, I think they’ll normally be amenable. There’s also some of the old school landlords that like it the old-fashioned way, and find ways to take advantage of those scenarios as well. There’s not a hard and fast either way, but there’s certainly some things that we think about, does it make sense for this occupier and this landlord to have this platform together, something we’re doing on a case-by-case basis I would say.
Yeah, that makes sense. Okay well hey, it’s been great. I do have a final question for you.
We’ve talked about this, shifting real estate strategy is the long game and advising clients to think carefully before they make major moves, obviously, is the obvious step. But, what are you telling your clients as they look at their portfolios for ’21, ’22 and beyond? What should they be really focusing on and thinking about?
Yeah. It’s aligning a lot of strategies together. You’ve got to have a data strategy, in terms of just having basic reliable data to rely on. It’s got to be in a global perspective. We’ve seen more clients, over the past couple of years, really try to think globally than we ever have before. Whereas maybe 10, 15 years ago it was very regionalized, it decentralized. Everyone seems to be going central and global, when it comes to data.
I would recommend, what we’re seeing in clients, is that portfolio and workplace strategy have to be linked. You can’t do one strategy without the other. They’re intertwined, and you have to be able to make them work together. If you are either densifying or undensifying, or going to work from home, that’s going to have a portfolio effect. If there’s places that you are setting up your portfolio from a talent perspective, that’s going to change your work from home philosophy. Just making sure that those things are coupled together.
And then, the last thing I would say is that clients are looking for flexibility. While it looks like we might have turned the corner here, and we might be out of this thing by the end of 2021, there’s also no assurances. And there’s no assurances that things won’t be permanently changed, in some capacity, even as we head into the next couple years. The sophisticated occupiers have a CRE department that is set up to be flexible, that is set up to be proactive, and they’re trying to build in that flexibility.
The last thing I would say is that the really great occupiers are looking for market opportunities. They can identify a landlord that either might be struggling or might be amenable to broader terms, they’re figuring out what are their longterm plays where they don’t want to make a change. Can we take advantage and give the landlord some longterm security? The places where they want to build in flexibility, because they don’t know if it’s a longterm play.
So the ones that are really focused on strategy, backed up by good data, I think are the ones that are going to come out of this just fine. The ones that are still being reactive, that still are going to use COVID and use economic recession as an excuse for not getting their house in order, I think are the ones that are going to struggle.
It’s shifting from defense to offense, hopefully, for people.
Well thank you, Brett. Again, Brett Abrams, global head of portfolio administration at Cushman & Wakefield. I think this is incredibly valuable, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk again soon.