In the age of connectivity, the value of real estate increasingly includes more than just the space that it can provide. Since all of us are required to interact with our physical environment, it demands a certain amount of our attention. Attention, it turns out, is one of our most valuable finite resources. Just a quick glance at the list of the biggest public companies in the world reveals that almost all of them have found a way to capture and monetize massive amounts of attention.
The real estate industry is learning that buildings can also be an aggregator of attention. But in order to do so, it needs to find a way to further engage us. As Tim Wu said in his book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, “When we speak of living environments and their effects on us, then, we are often speaking too broadly—of the city, the countryside, and so on. Our most immediate environment is actually formed by what holds our attention from moment to moment, whether having received or taken it.”
This scramble for attention is part of what has fueled the recent updraft in tenant engagement technology. A lot of software code has been written lately to connect the tenants with their buildings because making this connection creates a lot of utility for every party involved. Managers are able to automate, document and streamline the task of running a building. Tenants are able to more easily complete tasks like paying rent or requesting maintenance. Plus, maybe more importantly, occupants are able to democratize and activate the space that they occupy. Activation can come in the form of a rooftop yoga class or a discount to a local dog walker. Having a direct connection with your physical world can have a lot of benefits with very little financial cost. But they do cost attention and that attention is a source of value that the property industry has never before been able to harness.
This new way of thinking, that properties are valuable for their human connections as well as physical space, has been a fringe idea in the real estate industry, mostly being applied to a few showpiece, luxury locations. But a wave of new entrants have shown that a more mainstream adoption of tenant engagement apps might be on the horizon. This month the Houston-based property firm Hines announced that they were partnering with the French employee engagement firm Workwell. Hines is one of the largest office owners in the country and have $116.4 billion of assets under management globally. They are also an old, private firm much like many of the other big property companies, many of which have been slow to adopt the new property paradigm. So when they made the announcement of the partnership I wanted to talk to the person who was spearheading this initiative.
Luckily I was able to be put in contact with Jesse Carrillo, Chief Information Officer at Hines. He told me about how the larger cultural trends of paying more attention to our devices, “We walk around with these super computers in our hands that we call smartphones. Technologies like our new app permeate our homes lives. Our tenants now desire that same technology across all parts of their daily lives – from home, to the office, to retail spaces. Our new Workwell app maintains the human factor Hines has been known for over the years through our superior property management while allowing us to more effectively engage and collaborate with our tenants.”
Workwell is a mobile application connecting the spaces, services and people inside buildings through an array of features including service requests, room control, cafeteria, infrastructure, and building access. These features help simplify operations, streamline communications and enhance the workplace experience all under a single screen.
When I asked why Hines chose Workwell Jesse told me that he liked that they had a launch ready suite of services but also created the product flexible enough to meet their custom needs and integrations. This makes the features easy to configure based on each property’s need. The open design goes beyond that and actually makes it easy for other technologies to integrate. Jesse told me that “Workwell publishes their Software Development Kit, or SDK, to allow for easier integration, either as a link back to the partner’s site, branded to look like Workwell, or using built-in Workwell functionality and a partner’s Application Programming Interface (API) to transmit data. As such, they have a large variety of integration partners, and the list will continue to grow as more sites are added.”
How the software is branded matters a lot. Since a lot of these digital amenities don’t charge the user (you wouldn’t want to discourage them giving you their attention after all), it is important that the property is able to create a brand that can be the beneficiary of the goodwill. The hope is that as people recognize the benefits of living and working in these connected spaces and then be willing to pay more for them. As Jesse told me, “We plan to customize each site by using the building name with Workwell. We want to showcase each property in the best and most appropriate way for its market. Each property will have custom imagery and a unique set of features within their app.”
I agree with Jesse that every building will have a different use case for these apps. I also asked him which types of buildings would he be looking to deploy this technology first. He said, “The convenience and community building of Workwell can help connect and serve office parks, mixed-use buildings and dense urban environments. Multi-tenant office towers are a target market, but Workwell also powers single-tenant corporate buildings or single-companies over multiple sites.”
Hines obviously sees a lot of reasons to start to create a digital experience to accompany the physical ones that its buildings provide. I don’t think that we have fully seen the potential of these connective technologies. The more they get used, the more they are able to understand how we are the most willing to give up our attention. The value of this attention has yet to be fully explored but just like any other valuable resource, finding the best use for it is only a matter of time.