Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, much has changed in the world of work and real estate. Ideas that were once considered fundamentally immoveable—so set in stone that to question them would have seemed foolish—have crumbled as society has shifted, in many ways dramatically, toward very different ways of working and living.

“Going to the office,” once an axiomatic fact for employees, is now an option for many workers.Any leadership team who wants employees back in the office knows that, in order to navigate this well, the office must offer an experience that is additive or better than what people can get at home, and is worth the commute. In my role as the firm’s Chief People Officer for a global real estate investor, developer, and operator, I am focused on evolvingnot only our own people processes, especially attracting, cultivating and retaining talent, but also helping design a new industry standard for the role of office real estate

While the forced exodus did temporarily change the real estate landscape, time and distance made many stalwart remote-work supporters think twice. We now find ourselves at a crossroads, with people craving the physical and emotional connections with friends and colleagues missing from their lives for months and, in some cases, more than a year. The solution, though, is not to simply bring those people back to the office, but to use our properties as centers of creativity and community where culture and belonging thrive. We are accomplishing this by redesigning interior spaces, implementing new people policies around hybrid work and community building, and implementing enabling technology designed to transform the work experience.

One divide we hope to conquer is a digital one. How can we equip our employees with the tools they need to be successful, and how can we ensure that we do so in an equitable manner? With technology so deeply embedded in our daily lives, the concept of “digital equity”is gaining traction, especially related to hybrid work models. Those who do not have access to technology outside of the workplace are burdened with an artificial barrier to entry and participation, but we as HR professionals have a unique opportunity to empower them, leveling the playing field. Previously disconnected employees can form more meaningful relationships, take part in educational courses, and work at a pace in line with their talents. New hardware designed for the hybrid world can connect people in offices with those at other locations, and make it feel as if they were sitting side by side.  This not only crosses the remote work divide, but also crosses the global divide and helps distributed teams in different country HQs feel closer than ever.  Technology does not recognize preexisting conditions of inequity, nor does it discriminate. All someone needs isequitable access.

Another technology that we are exploring at Hines is a system developed by Pangeam. A network of Pangeam’s deep-learning sensors in the office can show where there was the most foot traffic via a heatmap, for example, or where employees typically gather to connect and how long those connections last. The nature and quality of interactions in the space, before impossible to measure, is now data at our fingertips. What we believe is that we can effectively engineer “synchronicity”—a Jungian concept that states that unrelated events often belie a deeper, more profound intelligence at work—in our workspaces. By understanding how people interact and the places that spark spontaneous moments of insight, we can facilitate collaboration and ensure everyone works in a positive, enabling environment. If that is not happening, we can adjust accordingly based on the data.

While many firms possess data and analytics on their talent programs, the critical differentiator is knowing how to use that data most effectively while also managing employee concerns about privacy and surveillance. Through Microsoft 365 alone, our HR team can proactively monitor burnout and mental health issues, know if there is collaboration happening between organizational silos, identify behavioral differences between high- and low-performing team members,and identify warnings of employee dissatisfaction ahead of resignation – all while preserving individual privacy and keeping person-level data confidential.This is only the beginning of what we can accomplish from an HR perspective, while always being cognizant that good data stewardship is critical.

The world may have changed, but that only means that we must continue to change, too. The ways we implement technology in the HR function and beyond will help as we transition the offices of old to truly connected ecosystems—sustainable spaces where fulfillment and belonging are standard, not extraordinary. There is a significant opportunity for companies willing to invest in this journey to emerge on the other side as leaders, and we’re proud to already be doing so here at Hines.