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PropTech Today: Are we hiring the wrong people?

As real estate firms begin to execute their Q3 strategies and think more closely about Q4, there is one major question that many are asking themselves while others are yet to even realise it could be a problem: are we hiring the right people to help this firm grasp the opportunities of digital transformation?

The UK is in uncertain times. It is often the reaction of real estate firms, in times like this, to stop planning. What’s the point in planning when we don’t know what the future looks like?

This is wrong. While the short-term future of the UK remains uncertain, therefore somewhat justifying your short-term vision being put on ice, the country’s long-term future is, in many ways, far more certain.


We know, for example, that digital transformation will continue to drive change and we know that technology and data will become more and more important.

While I understand the recruitment drought for sales people, this shouldn’t be the case for future-looking personnel. In fact, now is the best time to get them established in the business.

This means that preparations for our long-term future can continue as normal, regardless of whether Brexit is or is not a calamity.

A key part of this preparation has to be acquiring the right talent with the right skills to your company.

In a world where data is more valuable than oil, it’s vital that we have people on our team who know how to harness the opportunities and more people who can specifically help orchestrate the requisite internal changes that need to occur.

Just this week, Willis Allen Real Estate has done just this. The leading luxury firm, based in San Diego, has hired Zane Burnett to be its Chief Digital Officer.

Upon his appointment, Burnett explained that Willis Allen “has an unyielding desire to innovate and try new things, which isn’t a sentiment as widespread as one might think in this industry”.

This unyielding desire to innovate and try new things is something we should all be aspiring to. But this can only be done by hiring the right people to lead the way.

I’ve been thinking about real estate’s evolving skills requirements a lot recently, largely because of the interviews that my colleague Will has been conducting with various heads of innovation around global real estate.

A recurring theme throughout has been recruitment - in an age where technology is king, these people are most concerned about the humans they’re surround themselves with.

I just want to share a few key quotes from those interviews:

Alex Edds, Head of Innovation, JLL:

“To understand data and extract maximum value from it, companies need to be hiring a Workplace Scientist/Analyst.”

“This will be an increasingly common role which I think will incorporate aspects of facilities management, human resources, and data analysis to figure out which aspects of any team or space are most productive and which most wasteful. JLL is creating an increasing number of data roles throughout the company, all in the hope of driving better service provision.”

“And then, perhaps most importantly, we have the new concepts of change management and cultural assimilation.”

“JLL’s own offices are a prime example of this. Our Warren Street HQ looks so radically different compared to a decade ago. Not just its layout and facilities, but the people who work there, too. The colour of their skin, their cultural and societal backgrounds, the clothes they wear, their style of work, their life priorities: it’s all different.”

Gaia Arzilli, Innovations & Partnerships Lead, HB Reavis:

“Tomorrow, I am going to lunch with one of our newest First Impression Managers (this title is one way in which HB Reavis likes to elevate their receptionists) because I can see that she has a lot to give. She is young and she has a great opportunity to work in this business at the beginning of her career.”

“So, tomorrow we’re going for lunch and I have told her I am going to interview her to find out what drives her every morning when she gets up and looks out of the window. What does she want? Why is she here?”

Thomas Herr, Head of Digital Innovation EMEA, CBRE:

“We have people who are employed solely to connect us to PropTech organisations, immerse themselves in the industry, represent us at conferences, etc.”

“We even have people who are responsible for ensuring that tech-providers are sent in the appropriate direction when looking to pitch their offerings.”

“It’s such a big problem for entrepreneurs, especially with huge companies like us. Too often, it’s just pot luck whether they end up addressing the right person or not, the one who will appreciate what they’re trying to do. We’re working really hard to fix this.”

You see how all three of them, in their own distinct ways, is focused on identifying the best people to help them drive transformation and address current weaknesses?

We can even look at the head of innovation themselves and see a dramatic shift in the types of people who are occupying these positions.

Gaia from HB Reavis, for example, is a young woman from a largely non-real estate background who is now leading one of the most innovative firms in Europe. Only five years ago, such a thing was unheard of.

I know too that Alex Edds’ counterpart in Asia, Jordan Kostelac, had little real estate experience before being offered his current position.

In an upcoming interview with Will, yet to be published, Jordan even goes so far as to say that his ‘greatest asset’ is that he ‘doesn’t understand real estate’.

These people are being given these jobs by firms who realise that their journey over the next fifty years is going to be nothing like that of the past fifty - just because they have managed to get themselves this far with great success, they know they lack the knowledge and skills to continue this alone.

And so they’re looking for people from other industries and other backgrounds; people who have a proven understanding of technology, transformation, and data; people who are themselves able to identify and nurture the skills and talent of those below them.

I think Will says it well at the end of his interview with Gaia: “There is something different about Gaia, and it has nothing to do with her gender or age. I would call it an energy, but that’s too ‘new-agey’.”

“Perhaps it’s this equal passion for people and technology - perhaps it informs a different take on the whole subject of innovation, less inspired by the fact that it creates a gap in the market which people can exploit for capital gain, more that it promises to improve life and improve our relationship with the world around us.”

Whether you like it or not, these sentiments are the future of real estate, of this there is no question. Things are different now and if you don’t fully understand how and why, it’s time to hire some people who do and can feed that knowledge throughout your organisation.

In uncertain times like these, it is fine to put a pause on ‘short-termism’ but these are the best times to dig deep, look long and prepare for a more stable and transformative future.

*James Dearsley is a leading PropTech influencer and commentator, and is co-founder of PropTech platform Unissu. You can follow James on Twitter here.


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