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APAC update: Covid-19, return to work, and planning for a different future

In this Q&A we talk to Rob Aird, Unispace’s Managing Director for APAC, about the effects of the coronavirus in his region and his best advice for clients. Plus, we discuss whether businesses should look to shed space – or reconfigure.

Each part of the world has had a unique pandemic experience. It’s brought a lot of change: at Unispace, we’ve coped with managing our own safety and resilience as well as helping our clients to manage theirs. And just as we began seeing second waves, Unispace made two very strategic C-suite appointments. So we asked Rob how he’s steered his region through so much change, and what the future holds for Unispace and its clients in APAC and around the world.

Rob, how has the APAC market fared under the coronavirus?

Covid-19 has followed the sun. Australia and New Zealand in particular took a very conservative approach to Covid-19, with early lockdowns being effective. Similarly, Singapore acted fast and in turn saw a faster recovery to the workplace.
This meant we found ourselves working with clients on their post-Covid return to workplace strategies sooner than Europe or North America. The benefit of this was taking key learnings and insights from getting people back to work safely in APAC and applying them as a global business to support the other regions as they opened back up.
More recently, the second waves that hit Australia and New Zealand were a bit of a shock. Business confidence took a hit, and many clients became less certain about how to plan for their future workplace needs. It’s been our job to guide these clients through current and future workplace options, and ensure they remain operational throughout.

What did this mean for Unispace in APAC?

Well, New Zealand has been a leader in terms of Covid-19 and for our business. I’m proud to say that we’re the market leader in New Zealand and as a result our team there has been able to help leading businesses develop effective and workplace solutions, ones that have been applied globally.

As for Australia, well that is where Unispace started and where we continue to gain market share. We understand the impact of the second wave on our clients and are offering practical solutions for working safely from home and in the office when they return.

Asia is also looking strong. Our pan-Asian capability is key to supporting clients with a full global offering and we are starting to see those clients committing to investments in the region, a true testament to the speedy post-Covid recovery. We’re really focused on building our presence in Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and India. We have established a great client base and have hired top talent in the region to support their needs. We’ll have some exciting announcements in the coming weeks so watch this space.

Some industries will need time to recover. We’re still seeing a lot of opportunity in financial, professional and legal services companies, as well as life sciences and government. The public sector is a new area of focus for us because we can prove our transparency, value for money and de-risking – which is vital when you’re spending taxpayers’ money.

What strategic advice would you offer clients in APAC right now?

My advice to clients would be;

1. Start planning now

Start planning your next projects now, even if there is still a degree of uncertainty. To get the right solution takes time for any business, especially during times like these. I expect a bigger return to the office over the coming months, with more people wanting to be in the office and the business needing them back too. A degree of working from home and flexibility will remain because it is good for everyone. But leaders we are talking to are realising that there’s just no substitute for the office. It’s the single most important tool for driving collaboration, innovation and problem-solving. It offers things you can’t get any other way; at least, not with current technology. So, don’t wait for your return, plan now for a seamless transition back to the workplace.

2. Rethink your workplace needs and your space requirement

I expect a net reduction in floor space requirements, up to 10-20% on average, due to lower headcount and new ways of working. Some firms might lose 5-10% of their headcount through downsizing. Another 10-30% reduction will come from increased working from home. And this translates to huge OpEx and CapEx savings for businesses. So, offices need to be made ready for that eventuality.

A sea of desks is no longer necessary or appropriate, which frees up space for meeting rooms, extra amenities, and space to promote culture and brand. That helps to reduce density while getting people safely together.

A degree of uncertainty will remain in all these plans.

  • How many people will work from home?
  • How many days per week?
  • What types of work or social activity will be done in the office?

Luckily, we’ve come up with a new workplace framework – Propeller – which helps our clients answer these questions. Our survey tools and predictive analytics help to put numbers against them also. But most importantly, we are developing plans with incremental approaches to change, including pilot projects. That way clients can test the theories before making long-term decisions. No one can afford to wait for a magical answer that just won’t come.

Unispace has announced two very senior appointments, both in the USA. What does that mean for your region?

Yes, our new Global CEO and our Chief Revenue Officer joined in September. Unispace has been on an aggressive global growth trajectory for most of its 10 years, and this just proves that we’ve been successful. It’s inevitable that more of our executive team will be based outside of Australia, since our business has grown to 46 studios in 25 countries around the world.

Steve (CEO) and Michael (CRO) are hugely experienced with global enterprise clients and have great connections. They’re all about relationships – Steve’s already said he intends to spend half his time out front with clients and partners. As soon as travel is an option again, he’s prioritised Singapore and Sydney for meeting the team and clients here.

Having come from some of the world’s largest commercial real estate agencies, Steve and Michael both understand the very specific needs of large global businesses, and we’ll only benefit from that. With so many large multinationals headquartered in the northern hemisphere, but with regional headquarters in places like Sydney and Singapore, our global connectivity means we’re very well-placed to support them. Having studios all over the world means clients don’t always have to travel to project locations, they can rely on us for the same account lead and even the same project manager, wherever the project is. So I expect more and more of Unispace’s business to flow around the world. Not only can we pass the baton between our regions, but we can also use our studios in different time zones to keep working on client projects 24/7.

Even in the midst of the pandemic, Unispace remains upbeat and ambitious. What makes the company so resilient?

Unispace is nimble and agile so we’re less vulnerable to big shifts in the market. We’ve held our own and even broken new ground, especially with our future workplace framework I mentioned - ‘Propeller’. Because we’re a young company (this year is our tenth anniversary), we can rapidly reorient ourselves around wherever the market is moving. When a client needs to lose some space, we’re here for them just as much as ever. We can also give them the data they need so they can get the best results for their business.

Plus, we still rely on all the things that have always made us different or even unique, which now appeal to clients more than ever. Our end-to-end approach from strategy through to construction means that we can de-risk their projects, provide cost transparency, savings, speed and ease of project management to resource constrained corporate real estate teams.

So with the coronavirus, growth plans and a new CEO, there’s been a lot of change. But no one ever came to Unispace to be bored! Apart from Covid-19, it’s all good – we’re ambitious and ready for another decade of growth. It’s always been a pretty exciting ride here, and this is just the next phase. We might need to strap ourselves in, but that’s why we work here.

About Rob Aird

Rob has spent the last 20 years in leadership roles in property, construction, infrastructure, building materials and professional services. He has always focussed on creating value for customers and driving growth, team building and business improvement. He leads our teams in Australia, New Zealand and Asia (Singapore, Hong Kong and India) as well as our global corporate services teams.
Follow Rob on LinkedIn.