Q&A: Colliers Flex Space VP Francesco De Camilli on How the Pandemic Is Changing Portfolios

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Coffee With: Francesco De Camilli, Colliers International VP of Flex Space  

As a vice president of flexible workplace at one of the world’s leading commercial real estate brokerages, Francesco De Camilli has had a behind-the-scenes view on how companies are planning for the future of work — and how workspace needs are evolving accordingly. In our “Coffee With the Experts” interview series, he shares some insights.

Francesco De Camilli

Francesco De Camilli, Colliers

Supporting a roster of Fortune 500 occupiers at Colliers International, Francesco De Camilli is seeing a certain trend: “The office seems to be shifting from traditional fixed space downtown as the norm to having a distributed range of spaces on demand,” he told Upflex earlier this month. “Our occupiers are in a position where they need to figure out how to implement this more distributed workplace.”

We sat down (virtually) with De Camilli for insight into his role, his take on 2020’s flexible workplace trends, and the lowdown on the solutions he’s helping enterprise companies put into action.

Upflex: What does your role in flexible workspace entail — and how did you get into it?

Francesco De Camilli: I was first introduced to CRE through a gig at Bisnow Media, where I worked for six years. What I liked about it is that at its core, CRE is about supporting people. The sector that I work in, flexible workspace, is a more activated and holistic way of supporting people in companies. 

I also like the flex workspace sector because it’s always been disruptive within the industry — it’s one of the most dynamic, fastest moving sectors in real estate — and the pandemic has just accelerated its underlying trends. As Vice President of Flex Workplace I oversee portfolio consulting, transaction management, and product development for all things flex. Navigating new workspace models for the future, and my role has always been about helping them understand how to leverage new solutions and, especially right now, take advantage of the opportunity to see around the corner.

Upflex: In what ways have you seen 2020 disrupt the industry?

De Camilli: One big thing is that it has made us question so many assumptions about where, and when, we should work. Broadly speaking, I think this period of disruption we’re going through has basically taken the workplace and unchained it from the office. 

We’re living in a much more distributed working environment now, so the role the office plays is changing from one we accepted as this non-negotiable fact — get up every day, go into to the office, work from the office no matter what — to an intentional, purpose-built environment meant to serve specific needs of the organization, whether that be collaboration, group brainstorming, all-hands meetings, client meetings. That’s a major shift we’re all coping with on a personal and connective level. 

Upflex: How has that shift affected your role? How has it affected what your clients are after?

De Camilli: Traditionally, my job has been to find flex spaces for large occupiers, helping them find great hubs to park employees on 12- and 24-month agreements with a flex workspace operator for dedicated spaces. In that previous model, the ability to work from home barely exists: You’re at the office every day, there’s an assigned seat for everybody.  

Now, Fortune 500 large occupiers are grappling with how to create a new workplace plan that marries some elements of the past with some elements of the future, trying to adapt to the new needs of their employees. That’s leading us to look at a much more decentralized model of office space. 

Upflex: What do those new employee needs look like, that you see your clients working to respond to?

De Camilli:  More than ever, employees don’t want to go into dense concentrated cities that require long commute times. Once they’re a little more comfortable getting outside of their homes — and this ebbs and flows based on the state of the pandemic — they want to be able to access professional, productive workplaces that are close to home, private, contained, and they want to be able to do that on demand. That network of spaces cuts down the commute drastically; it’s all about providing workspace solutions that minimize the collective commute time of employees. A lot of companies do not have employees that live in a highly concentrated radius around their main office. In this model, they don’t need to.

This means companies are looking less for dedicated space, and more for access to on-demand space — and beyond that, to a network of spaces on more of a usage based model — so their employees can decide if they don’t want to work from home to work for the day, and they can tap into this network of spaces your company’s made available to you based on what’s convenient, on demand. 

Instead of commuting into the main office, which might be in a congested downtown area that’s a long trip for the employee, they have access to a network of micro-spaces nearby that they can use as they need.

Upflex: It sounds smart, but it also sounds like a lot for a company to manage. How have you seen companies actually put this into practice?

De Camilli: It means you have 10, 15, 20 micro-offices and serving up those options to their employees. And that requires more services — more tech — to unify all those spaces. So the shift is from a traditional, fixed-in-place portfolio management approach to a distributed approach that relies in part on technology. 

Our solution for that is that we partnered with Upflex to launch the Colliers Mobility Pass, which is a “pay as you go,” membership-based platform which gives a company access to thousands of global workspaces in Upflex’s network, on demand. That’s bringing more flexibility and choice to occupiers’ workspace models.

Upflex: It’s a great idea, especially considering work from home isn’t practical or productive for everyone all the time. Why do you think it took a pandemic to get people to consider this model?

De Camilli: I think it was considered, just, such a drastic change to company culture that it was too risky,  too avant garde, for large Fortune 500 companies to consider. It requires a lot of guts to do something different. But, going through a period that forced us to try something new — not only among the junior ranks, but at the senior level — kind of throttled the industry. The fact that working from home for these upper ranks was, for the most part, seamless and productive awakened a lot of people to another way of working. 

And, since there was lower overall demand for more distributed workplace solutions, there were fewer solutions focused on helping companies enable it. But now, we’re seeing the birth of solutions to enable this type of working. Companies like Upflex are forming new solutions that allow occupiers to tap into a broad network of spaces on-demand. As more robust and comprehensive solutions mature, occupiers will only accelerate their adoption of these new models. 

Upflex: Where is your current office?

De Camilli: Our office in Manhattan is open in shift schedules. That’s for those who are interested in going in, but it’s by no means required. Personally, I just moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and I’ve been working from home, which I’ve really loved — for the most part. So, I haven’t gone into the office at all, though I have used the Collier’s Mobility Pass to book day sessions in workspaces now and then, to mix it up. It can get a little bit stale to be at home five days a week. The commute time for me to the office is over 45 minutes, and there are a couple great spaces within a five- to 10-minute walk here in Prospect Heights. That’s helping me keep the variety alive.