01 November 2018

Paul Clark: UK real estate needs to broaden its skill set

The property sector’s poor record on diversity has been endemic and, as I’ve written previously, this narrowness of backgrounds and viewpoints presents real risks for our industry.

Without a better balance of ethnicities, gender, age and social backgrounds, we end up with similar people with similar views, reinforcing our own assumptions and leaving us vulnerable to blind spots.

We and many of our peers are working hard to rectify this, with organisations such as Reading University’s Pathways to Property playing an important role in helping open our sector up to new talent.

Yet, as I reflect on the evolving demands of today’s customers and their changing expectations of real estate, I’d argue that our sector needs to push forwards a step further. We must embrace not just a more diverse workforce, but a much more diverse skill set.

We can no longer develop real estate in the lazy expectation that once it is built, “they will come”. Today’s customers enjoy ever growing choice in how and where they work, shop and spend time, and in an age of next-day delivery and personalised service, are rightly bringing heightened expectations to their experience of places, too.

For our sector to thrive in this changing context, we need to evolve our thinking – moving beyond the traditional commodity pricing structures and fixed rents for long-term leases to a broader value proposition, delivering a much more innovative mix of services and experiences.

With lead-in times of up to five years for major schemes, we are designing projects for a future world, half a decade away. In this time, what goes on inside our spaces is likely to transform dramatically.

Traditional real estate business can either be part of this change, or watch others fill the gaps, intermediating between us and our customers.

The fastest growing businesses in property are now tech companies that have established themselves in the real estate sector. They’ve done that, not by hiring the same familiar faces, but by drawing on data, digital connectivity, marketing and hospitality skills.

To keep up, we need to do the same, bringing in new perspectives and fresh expertise, and competing for talent on a bigger stage, against large and sophisticated global operators.

A key element of this is the need to upskill on research and data, where our sector has been slow off the mark. Building the insights we need to better understand our customers and their goals will be key, ensuring that the spaces and services we design are not just meeting a need, but genuinely adding value.

Data alone is not the answer, of course, we need the skills to understand and implement what we learn, as well as the right mind-set on experience and service. Businesses that can do this well will capture the opportunity to move across the value chain, creating a more durable and diverse mix of income streams.

At The Crown Estate, as we focus on pivoting our business from a traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ mindset to one that’s focused on a much broader mix of services, our ability to integrate new talent and a broader mix of skills will be crucial to our success.

Clearly, the battle is not yet won on creating greater diversity in the property sector. But moving forward, we need to be doing even more – not just thinking about who fills property’s existing roles, but also about the new jobs, skills and thinking we need to bring in to the sector.

With fresh perspectives will come vital, if sometimes uncomfortable, challenge and we should embrace that disruption.

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