Despina Katsikakis of Cushman& Wakefield: “Bricks and mortar”

Building on the theme of the shift from ‘bricks and mortar‘ to new purpose and values — there is an opportunity to bring specialist expertise to help create new business cases that shift the perception of value from the cost of the building to the impact the building has on people, business and society. We need to bring […]

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Building on the theme of the shift from ‘bricks and mortar‘ to new purpose and values — there is an opportunity to bring specialist expertise to help create new business cases that shift the perception of value from the cost of the building to the impact the building has on people, business and society.

We need to bring new skills to the industry; we don’t need more chartered surveyors, we need more analysts, tech designers, curators, experience managers, human behaviour experts, and environmental and wellbeing experts. We as an industry need to take a hospitality mindset to focus on customer satisfaction and ongoing loyalty and service rather than transactions.

As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Despina Katsikakis.

For over 35 years Katsikakis has led innovation, research and implementation of transformative workplace environments and exemplary real estate developments worldwide.

As Cushman & Wakefield’s Head of Occupier Business Performance, she provides input across the firm’s global business on the rapidly changing context of work and its impact on employee engagement, productivity and wellbeing and the future role of the workplace.

With these factors increasingly determining the leasing decisions of leading corporations, Katsikakis’ unrivalled insight on the future of work benefits occupier clients — as well as the building landlords and investors — through repositioning commercial real estate to drive top line performance.

She serves on the advisory board of Delos™, the pioneers of Wellness Real Estate™ and founders of the WELL Building Standard and regularly lectures around the world, writes and contributes to media, research and publications on the future of the workplace.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?

I studied architecture in the 1970s, at the University of Illinois in Chicago, which is the ideal city to experience some of the greatest examples of American commercial architecture! I had great expectations when I graduated of ways that I could influence the design of buildings to positively impact the experience of the people that use them, but when I started working as an architect at a commercial architecture firm, I was greatly disillusioned to find that the focus of commercial office buildings was predominantly on cost efficiency and standardization. There was very little interest on people, the way they would use the building and the impact the building would have on them.

After a couple of years, I decided to go back to graduate school and left the U.S. to come to London to attend the Architectural Association. During that time, I met Dr. Francis Duffy, who was one of the founders of the visionary design and consulting firm, DEGW. DEGW was a firm established on the principle of understanding the user and ensuring that the design is based on evidence and data to inform and demonstrate the value of the building for all stakeholders. I was incredibly inspired to find a firm that approached commercial real estate from the inside out and focused on people-centric design! I joined DEGW in 1984 and over the next 28 years, built the consulting practice and international office footprint, becoming Chairman from 2000 to 2012 when the firm became part of DL & AECOM.

During my years at DEGW I had the great privilege to work very closely with the founders, particularly Frank Duffy & John Worthington, to pioneer the role of workplace consultancy with global corporations and real estate developers.

I worked at board level to understand business needs and connect culture, technology and organizational processes to the working environment. I successfully engaged leadership teams to create a vision, build alignment, enthusiasm and ownership of the necessary changes to workplace and behaviours to improve employee experience, engagement, wellbeing and business performance.
 I was instrumental in initiating and leading major global research studies on future trends in technology, user requirements and ways to transform the built environment and developed tools and methods to measure the impact of the built environment to business performance and future proof design decisions.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

It was one of my first business trips on my own to Japan in 1985. I was interviewing senior executives of the top financial services organizations on the future requirements for trading floors and the impact they would have on the design of buildings. I immediately realized that I was the only woman in the room who was not serving tea at every meeting, and that my hosts were always a bit unsure of how to proceed. Having attended a predominantly male architecture school, I had no hesitation to step in and lead the meeting and gather the data I needed, as that was the reason I was there.

I was delighted that the participants acknowledged their acceptance of me and my role, not just by contributing a wealth of data, but by also treating me as an honoured guest with invitations to their executive dining and karaoke club — where again I was the only woman. This experience taught me early on the value of feeling empowered to have a voice, to never need permission to contribute or feel out of place, which has served me well with any situation I have encountered in business ever since.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

As Cushman & Wakefield’s Global Head of Total Workplace, I leverage my expertise to provide input across the firm’s global business on the changing context of work and its impact on employee engagement, productivity and wellbeing.

This past year has been an important catalyst for change, bringing to life much of the work I have undertaken over the past 25+ years. Following our remote working experience during the pandemic, many of the trends I have been forecasting and implementing for visionary clients will now be accepted as the norm going forward.

My team has been at the centre of our firm’s response to the pandemic and we have taken an evidence-based approach to address the current uncertainty both in the short- and long-term.

We pivoted our proprietary statistical survey tool Experience per Square Foot™ ( XSF) to [email protected] to help our clients understand how the new enforced work-from-home context was impacting their employees’ experience and how it could inform the future role of the office.

Our [email protected] data from now over 75,000 participants worldwide highlighted that we are still working remotely with over 75% of people maintaining their ability to do focused work and effective collaboration. Most significantly, 90% of people now feel trusted by their managers to carry out their work remotely.

However, there are some significant challenges:

1. Human connections are suffering. While the work is getting done, interactions tend to be very project- and work-focused and formal. People are not socializing like they used to and as a result people are feeling a loss of connection to their colleagues, to the company culture and to mentoring and learning. All of these are critical to engagement and retention of talent. The unplanned social and business benefits from in-person environments where collisions and serendipitous conversations take place are missed by all — but particularly by parts of the business where creative collaboration is essential — so there are different priorities by function.

2. Our personal wellbeing has taken a hit. We are living a work-life integration where people don’t know when or how to turn off. They have low energy and they lack movement throughout the day, which is all impacting both physical and mental wellbeing.

3. The younger you are, the more you are struggling. When we started this study, we thought the younger generations would be more digitally savvy and would struggle less than the older generations. But the truth is, younger people are less likely to have adequate setups at home. Millennials in particular often have caregiver responsibilities, making it more challenging to be productive, and it weighs on their wellbeing.

Still, with all these challenges, 78% of people expect to have the choice and flexibility to work remotely post-pandemic, so the workplace will no longer be a single location, but a total workplace ecosystem of locations and experiences to support our convenience, functional needs and wellbeing.

As we embrace choice and more virtual working, our data strongly indicates the majority of work will be hybrid — where we will have the choice to work from home, the office and third places. As such, the office will have an even more critical role to play and it will need to be designed to embody culture and support learning, mentoring and curated experiences — an inspiring destination rather than rows of desks with people working by themselves. ​

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our people and culture make Cushman & Wakefield stand out. In an employee engagement survey, our culture was described as diverse, professional, inclusive, collaborative, and respectful, which I have experienced first-hand working for this company. Our employees are our business — they’re the ones producing thought leadership, delivering exceptional services and solutions to our clients, and making sure buildings and workspaces are safe, operational and innovative places. They’re also at the front and centre of our brand — our What’s Next campaign features our actual employees (not models) because they represent the future of our industry!

Additionally, we are agile in our approach to helping clients. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Cushman & Wakefield has been at the very forefront of leadership in our industry, from early innovations like our Six Feet Office prototype, which sets out a roadmap and protocols for social distancing in the office, and our Recovery Readiness guides created from best practices used in our offices in China where we saw the first effects of the outbreak; to our perspectives on the future of the workplace and our latest holistic review of the office market, including forecasts on recovery timing and an exploration of the continued evolution of the office-based workplace. This agility alongside the culture of collaboration and innovation, alongside our people and culture make us an inspiring place to work!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There is no doubt that there are numerous colleagues and clients that have helped me achieve success over the years. Through a continuous collaboration for over 30 years the renowned real estate developer Sir Stuart Lipton stands out as he has consistently inspired, supported and challenged me to innovate and contribute to ground-breaking, world class projects.

His passion to plan for the future and to demonstrate the value of place to end users prompt him to always ask ‘what’s next’ at the inception of every major project.

This challenge has become my personal work ‘mantra’ and has fuelled innovative research and design throughout my career.

My most recent collaboration with Sir Stuart was my role as vision curator for the development of 22 Bishopsgate, the 1.5-million-square-foot high-rise development in the City of London which was just completed, and is a building focused on people, community, engagement and wellbeing. 22 Bishopsgate is designed as a vertical village and brings to life the future purpose of an office; an inspiring destination to support people and business to thrive!

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?

I want to make the distinction that your statement refers to women in residential real estate versus commercial real estate. A 2020 study by the CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) Network estimates that the commercial real estate industry is made up of 36% women. The overall imbalance could be caused by a variety of factors, but some we’re addressing at Cushman & Wakefield are recruitment, our hiring processes, and retaining and developing employees. Some actions the firm has taken include:

· We hired a Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Nadine Augusta, who came most recently from Goldman Sachs in a similar role and who we believe is the right expert to effect long-term, transformational change in our firm and industry.

· We’ve built a network of employee resource groups (ERGs) that reflect our people across the firm, including WIN (Women’s Integrated Network), whose mission is to accelerate the advancement of women at our firm.

· And, in the U.S., we require diverse candidate slates and interview teams for open positions that we are recruiting for, while using interview methods that seek to eliminate bias in the selection process.

Our focus is to increase the number of underrepresented employees and ensure we foster equitable and fair growth opportunities for all employees, because diverse teams drive innovation and better solutions for our clients.

While there’s still work to be done, we’ve made great progress on advancing women in our firm the past several years, and currently we’re an industry leader on this front. As of 2019, 39% of our workforce and 43% of our new hires were women. Our Board of Directors is 60% diverse, with six of our ten trustees being diverse by either race, gender or both.

What 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?

For individuals — people often think senior leaders and HR are solely responsible for diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) at their work. While leadership and HR can help define goals, enforce policies and provide tools that drive DEI; it’s really up to each one of us, especially if you’re a manager. Everyone has a responsibility to advance DEI efforts. It’s important that we accept ownership to influence our working environment. You can get involved in ERGs, go beyond required company training to explore other DEI resources at your company, or engage in thoughtful conversations with colleagues to learn more about their background, interests, practices and more.

For companies — There are a few practical actions companies can take:

· Make DEI and gender parity a priority and ensure that all hiring managers know this and enforce it;

· Be deliberate and targeted in recruiting, development and advancement efforts; and

· Hold leaders accountable for progress on this front.

For society — As a society, we can:

· Encourage more girls toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects in school

· Provide greater childcare and eldercare resources

· Enact policies that eliminate the gender pay gap

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Gender bias that is inbuilt all around us creates great challenges. Companies historically have conflated long hours in the office with job effectiveness, often disproportionately rewarding and promoting employees who work the longest hours in the office, putting unnecessary pressure on women who often also carry family responsibilities.

According to the UN, globally, 75% of unpaid work is done by women, and even in Scandinavian countries where there is a better balance, men still spend less time on unpaid work than women. This has become even more evident during the pandemic, when enforced work from home alongside home schooling has created tremendous pressures on working parents and particularly working women.

While things are getting better, women have been conditioned to feel they carry the responsibility to care for their family’s needs, their team’s needs, their business and client needs, all before they can take care of themselves.

The pandemic remote work experience has brought about a new digital equality, enabling a greater diversity of voices to be heard and to participate equally, so we have an opportunity to acknowledge that there is room for greater flexibility and safeguard these new ways of working so more women can effectively contribute. I think it is exciting to consider that changing some of the variables of work can potentially make a significant positive impact on society.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?

The things that excite me most at the moment are the developments in technology that enable us to use sensors and IoT (Internet of Things) to produce real-time, dynamic data of building use, energy consumption and user experience.

The ability to leverage technology in buildings in completely new ways opens up the opportunity to create a dynamic relationship between the user and the building. Buildings will be able to adapt in real time to support different space and environmental requirements and develop predictive analytics to improve both operational efficiency and user experience.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

It has been evident for some time that buildings have been built, bought, designed and valued according to the priorities of the supply process itself — and not those of the end user/customer, who have been secondary to the investment decision. For much of the twentieth century, real estate has been simply ‘bricks and mortar’ assets to be traded.

Economic and business change, digital disruption, changing social values and environmental issues, are all ever-present threats to this approach. Investors, occupiers, facility managers, asset managers, designers and building owners — everyone involved in the real estate process — will be affected by these changes, and the only way to mitigate risk is to ensure that real estate becomes an agent of change with new social relevance.

People and society matter more than ever before, and the pandemic has created an impetus to reimagine the purpose and value of all types of buildings, whether for working, living, shopping, learning or playing. We need to shift from bricks and mortar to focus on service, experience, environment, social impact and business performance.

Achieving this shift in priorities will require significant cultural change; requiring new skills and competencies, new measures and indices, and innovation across the industry. I am very excited to have just been appointed to the management board of the British Council of Offices (BCO) and look forward to instigating significant change over the next few years. This is a very exciting time for the industry!

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

If you’re a manager, know that employees’ negative experiences are often subtle, not explicit. Pay attention to dynamics within your team to ensure everyone has a chance to speak and be heard; that members of your group are respectful toward one another and held accountable for their words and actions; and that roles rotate so everyone can contribute equally and has a chance to thrive.

Ok, here is the main question of our interview. You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the Real Estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?

Building on the theme of the shift from ‘bricks and mortar‘ to new purpose and values — there is an opportunity to bring specialist expertise to help create new business cases that shift the perception of value from the cost of the building to the impact the building has on people, business and society.

We need to bring new skills to the industry; we don’t need more chartered surveyors, we need more analysts, tech designers, curators, experience managers, human behaviour experts, and environmental and wellbeing experts. We as an industry need to take a hospitality mindset to focus on customer satisfaction and ongoing loyalty and service rather than transactions.

Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

One of the subjects I have been passionate about over several years is the impact that buildings have on health and wellbeing. We spend 90% of our time indoors and the built environment significantly impacts our health and wellbeing.

There are decades of research that show how improving on the basic code requirements to provide better air quality and filtration, lower CO2, more natural light, biophilic design and acoustic considerations can help reduce the spread of infectious diseases and also to significantly improve cognitive performance.

I have had the honour to serve on the advisory board of Delos, the pioneers of wellness real estate, and WELL Building Certification since 2015, and in light of the new awareness of the role buildings play through the pandemic, we are now seeing a significant shift of priorities to ensure buildings are actively supporting health, safety and wellbeing. These considerations will no longer be a trend or a nice-to-have, but a basic expectation of buildings which will make a huge impact on people’s lives.

I always ask clients: ‘’What would it feel like if you could leave work, feeling better than when you arrived?’’ Think of the potential consequences of this objective for individuals, families and corporations and how it can positively impact society!

How can our readers follow you online?


Twitter: @dkatsikakis

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