Humans & Buildings – How a Sociologist is Leading a Proptech Startup Through the Global Pandemic

with insights from academic training in Sociology and years of real-world commercial real estate experience, the CEO of spaceOS takes the long view on tech, buildings, and humans

by Dave McKenna, Editor CREB – July 7, 2020

Humans have an old relationship with buildings — very old. Maciej Markowski, CEO of proptech startup spaceOS, reminds us of the close connection we have with our homes and workspaces in his TedTalk, “Humans & Buildings – finally connected.” Markowski notes how this rapport has evolved over the centuries. Now, the present challenge of the global pandemic is testing our  harmony with built-spaces in unprecedented ways.

Surely it is a paradox that buildings are at once both a threat to our health during the pandemic, yet safely reentering them is critical to our economic recovery.  Because commercial real estate is both an asset that performs in the marketplace and the physical space in which the marketplace itself operates, how commercial real estate and the technology that forms it responds to the pandemic challenge, will greatly influence the success or failure of our emergence from this current crisis.

The global economy will only recover when the humans who create its wealth can fully reengage with their jobs and with each other. To do so will require safe, connected, and productive workspace. The CEO of spaceOS sees a vital role for proptech is in overcoming the economic catastrophe of our times.

Sociology and Proptech

Maciej Markowski has experience working for three of the top commercial real estate firms in the world, which is a good background for a proptech CEO. But he is also a Sociologist with two degrees in Sociology from the University of Warsaw, making Markowski perhaps one of the most insightful leaders in proptech. He takes the long view. “In the past, we made buildings from ice, dirt, wood, leaves, clay, hide, and stone. And they were built with our own hands or our father’s hands,” said Markowski.  Our connection with built-space was direct, material, and very personal.

Maciej Markowski, CEO at spaceOS

But in the modern era, buildings (like so much else in our culture) have become mere instruments whose value lies in its utility and in its efficiency — financial instruments — stores of wealth. “They have become like bonds. You fill a building with tenants tied to long-term leases and earn a 6% return forever,” said Markowski.

This Darwinian attitude regarding workspace was already changing prior to the pandemic. More and more, workspace is coming to be seen less as a cost of doing business and more as an enabler of that business. “Everyone is starting to understand the dynamics of productivity, engagement, and talent attraction possible in great workspace,” said Markowski.

All Tech is Eventually Proptech

The connection between buildings and the technology used to construct them, and employed inside them, has always been close and intimate. The Knap of Howar is the oldest stone-built house still standing anywhere in the world. The heavy slabs of gray slate were neatly joined over 5,600 years ago by a Neolithic family living on the far northern Scottish island of Papa Westray. The lonely homestead was occupied for centuries and was already ancient when the Great Pyramids of Giza were built by the Egyptians at the apex of their glory over 1,000 years later.

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Heavy flat stones laid double-thick form a human space older than metal tools or Sumerian cuneiform. That ancient domicile stands unbroken from an age when a sharp rock was the most sophisticated technology on the planet. Ultimately all technology is employed in the construction and occupation of shelter. From strong axes to global computer networks — everything humans invent they eventually employ to improve their living spaces. All tech is ultimately proptech.

Yet our common conception of workspace is a very recent notion. The modern office building is a creation of the twentieth century — just yesterday in the history of buildings, but an epoch-past in terms of the evolution of commerce and technology. “An office building from a century ago is practically indistinguishable from how the space is configured and used today,” said Markowski.

That was beginning to change. And then the pandemic hit.

Workspace Renaissance

Commercial real estate was in the midst of at least two significant disruptions prior to Covid-19. The first was digital transformation affecting everything from the tenant experience to lowering the considerable friction in real estate transactions. The second was the mounting pressure on the century-old long-term leasing model.

“Covid-19 has proved that we don’t need offices to be able to work. At the same time, it has helped highlight what we like about offices. There is no better way to build trust than in face-to-face conversation. The office is a great tool for communicating the brand and values of a company to its employees. We also need the human connection. Probably what works best is a hybrid model where people can work from anywhere, but there is a ‘home base’ and it’s all supported by workspace technology – at spaceOS we aim to be that missing link,” said Markowski.

The coronavirus has compounded these on-going evolutions with the new dynamic of workplace well-being. “The Covid-19 Pandemic has altered the way people will use their workspaces. Tenant and community member safety and well-being have become the most important factor for today’s offices,” said Markowski.

Covid-19 has proved that we don’t need offices to be able to work. At the same time, it has helped highlight what we like about offices

Maciej Markowski

The space we occupy itself is likely the change due to Covid. “Space must become more flexible and serve more than one purpose,” said Markowsi.  “Take retail for example. Retail space has suffered a lot and now the space is being used for many new things. There is a space in Amsterdam that is an office by day, and a night club in the evening. Introducing an end-to-end flex space management system like spaceOS can enable a building owner or operator to quickly repurpose their space and start leasing on more flexible terms.”

The aftermath of the pandemic is likely to permanently alter the way we interact with workspace to ensure everyone is safe and healthy. Markowski argues that proptech like spaceOS will be key to making that new equilibrium as painless as possible. A recent study by the American Institute of Architects outlines some of the technology required to safely reopen after the pandemic, which platforms like spaceOS can address. The AIA study points to corporate offices with smaller footprints, lower density, and great modularity.

Touchless interaction is one such capability which will be very helpful in combating the pandemic, as well as creating better, more seamless experiences in the buildings.

Another pre-Covid trend that is likely to accelerate is the pressure on the long-term lease. “Covid is putting a nail in the coffin of the long-term lease. It is just out of synch with how business is done today. Post-covid, many businesses are going to be even less willing to sign a five or ten-year lease,” said Markowski. “The leasing environment is going to be much more fluid and dynamic. The long term lease is a dinosaur from another age.”

We Reveal Ourselves in Our Spaces

We create our buildings to serve our needs and the spaces we create say something about the needs we recognize. The spaces we inhabit are the unavoidable expressions of the values we hold.  They say something about us. A workspace may be one of the most self-revealing expressions of a company, speaking silently about the inner life of that association more eloquently than any mission statement or motivational poster. “We invent ourselves in our space,” says Markowski.

What we chose to build in the future, and how we employ technology within our structures will be a part of our legacy, just as the hearty dwellings of Knap Howar celebrate the stout-hearted families that built them. They constructed their houses with the most simple of technology imaginable. Yet, supply those old walls with a new roof, and the antediluvian workmanship would keep you safe and warm just as it did for the robust Scotsmen of 3600 BCE. Perhaps our modern technology can serve us as well as theirs did to keep us safe and working together in our present endeavors.

Cover Photo Credit – Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash