It’s with great pleasure that we introduce you to Ben Munn, Managing Director of Flex Space at JLL, who’s been one of the main forces influencing the OfficeRnD product.
With over 20 years of commercial real estate experience, Ben has helped not only understand the state of our industry.
In this post, you will find Ben’s thoughts on the future of the flex space real estate industry. You’ll also learn why customer service will be an essential differentiator of successful flexible workspaces going forward.
But first, let’s briefly introduce you to Ben and his experience.
2021 Update: You can also check Ben’s most recent insights into the post-pandemic future of flex space market.
My career started in 1998 at Gensler, a big architecture and design firm. It was an amazing and fortuitous start to my career.
I hadn’t planned on a career in real estate and landed at Gensler by chance. They gave me every opportunity I could ask for and challenged me to learn new skills and take on new responsibilities.
This eventually led me to Gensler’s Consulting group.
There I was doing workplace and change management consulting with big blue-chip firms—law firms, banks, technology firms; companies like Phillips, JPMorgan Chase.
Years later, I received an offer to move to JLL to start up their Workplace Strategy business in EMEA.
Within weeks I was learning about financial models and investment cases in large capital projects as well as advising companies more broadly on their portfolio and workplace requirements.
In 2008, CBRE approached me with an exciting proposal and I took on their Workplace Strategy team helping the CBRE’s clients think through how their organizations would work in the future and helping them get there.
Eventually, I moved to Regus (now IWG). My role had three key responsibilities. One was to run the corporate accounts team who were responsible for winning and managing business from customers like Google and Amazon.
Another was to run the broker side of the business, and the final piece of it was developing and enhancing the flexible product for corporate customers.
At IWG, I got to know Tim Rodber who is the CEO of The Instant Group. He and I got on really well and he asked me to work at Instant, where I took on and built the Solution Development and Consulting team before adding Business Development to my responsibilities.
Not long ago, JLL, where I spent valuable time at the beginning of my career, persuaded me that they were serious about flex space and so now I am at JLL again, developing JLL’s flex workspace products and services for our occupier and investor customers.
As I think about the things that have shaped my career I would point to three key things:
1. Inquisitiveness and a desire to learn has been critical for me.
2. Bosses! Having a great boss makes a massive difference; the trust they give you, the challenge, the support. I have been very lucky to have great bosses who have encouraged me to go further than I was thinking I could.
3. Relationships. In the real estate industry creating good relationships with people is really important. I’m a big believer in the circularity of things. Our industry is getting bigger but it’s still quite small. The same people are involved for years and years, and you meet them again at different places in your journey.
Fifteen years ago lots of workspace change was going on, technology was becoming more and more incorporated in our work life, laptops and other mobile devices were becoming more prevalent. Companies realized that their employees could potentially be more free and independent whilst still working. But culturally it was a big change, a big challenge.
By that time, at JLL, I got involved in advising companies on how to make the big decisions about what workspace they needed. It was about where they should locate and with what level of flexibility, how much space they needed based on the way they were going to work, how much it was all going to cost and how they were going to pay for it.
For companies, making such decisions is incredibly impactful on a financial basis. Making a decision about what building to go into, whether to refurbish existing space and where they should do this can lead to a significant commitment of cost that could potentially become a constraint to their success.
Working with big players like Google, HSBC, and The Coca-Cola Company, I could see that it was very difficult to forecast what their business was going to look like a few years ahead, how many people they will employ, and what workspace they are going to need. The truth is there aren’t many large companies that can predict that. The reason is the variation of internal and external factors is huge.
Some companies invested in statisticians and data scientists to try to smooth the curve so that they would have better clarity on demand. Such businesses would do three or five-year budget plans. That would all be costed with real estate commitments, sometimes of 10+ years were made on the outcome of those plans, so whether they would grow by 10% or 7,5,% makes a huge difference to their cost base and real estate portfolio.
And some of those teams did a pretty good job. But none of them could ever forecast things like the Global crash in 2008 and its impact on the business, for example.
So we had these two things happening: companies realizing that predicting the future was hard, and employees being able to be more free and flexible in where and when they worked. In the context of the workplace, we were beginning to see that people wanted a better experience at the workplace. Companies, on the other hand, also wanted the same, but they wanted to avoid cost risk.
In 2011 WeWork was on the market for just a year and pretty much no one had heard of them, and Regus was still the big thing. It was quite early on to talk about flex but things were beginning to happen…
I then started thinking about how the flexible industry can help in the perspective of managing the demand and supply in a more effective way.
The thing that I found quite challenging, and therefore also presented opportunity, is that the real estate industry is very old and fragmented and it is full of people who find it hard to change their mindset about how things could be done. “We should do it this way because it’s the way it’s always been done.”
This is true for any long-established industry but I think it shouldn’t be that way. Instead, I believe in looking at things and approaching them differently; questioning if it should be that complicated and seeing what can be simplified.
It’s incredible what you can see when you put people at the center of your decisions. What I find amazing about the real estate industry as a whole is the influence it has on everyone’s life. Because it stretches into infrastructure, it stretches into re-development, it’s a political tool—it’s in all aspects of our lives.
In real estate, having a commercial mindset is essential. However, the industry should put the human at the center and recognize the structural problems of the office space sector. Such problems are long and standard lease agreements, the issue of capital, the inertia liability and contracts create.
In the traditional office sector, many companies are stuck in buildings that don’t suit their needs because of the cost of exiting the building or the cost of moving, or whatever.
But the flex industry is taking a different approach. It’s offering something different. It is wrapping things up. It’s making it simple and that’s why it’s becoming a necessity. As a part of the sharing economy, it is also helping change the supply chain for the better.
Nowadays, coworking spaces are not the only players in the flexible market.
Landlords are trying to do their own thing—you’ve got companies like JLL, CBRE Cushman & Wakefield that are realising the need to get involved in flex.
And of course, the customer! The corporates continue to face those same challenges to manage their space needs in ever-changing business environments.
And for those customers (who the old industry calls ‘tenants’), you can see the appetite for an improved buying experience. There’s a desire to buy an outcome for their business, to buy into an experience. Along with that, having access to information on how people are using space, how they are paying for it and how much, is incredibly valuable.
The technology side of the industry is also rising with the idea of turning something that has traditionally been B2B into B2C, or vice versa.
You see innovation and you see people with new energy and new ideas. They want to challenge things and find better ways of doing stuff.
And this is how I met the OfficeRnD team back in 2015. I got really intrigued by the product, and by the focus, the determination and the experience of the co-founding team. Eventually, we decided to work together.
I love the business and I think it’s in an amazing position.
Being part of the OfficeRnD’s Advisory Board is an incredibly rewarding thing to do with my time. I’m seeing people who have a real passion for the product and the industry. Also, I’m seeing them develop—both as individuals and professionals, taking on new challenges.
Operators will live and die by the commercial success of their business. And that success is, in a major way, determined by the experience they offer their customers. They want to focus on their customers, attracting new customers and keeping them happy.
OfficeRnD’s ability to enhance customer experiences through simplicity plays becomes a significant differentiator. Think of this simplicity in terms of invoicing, sign-in, security, bookings.
And operators that have a lack of information on how their business is performing, or on what’s driving their success commercially, are going to fail as a business.
The OfficeRnD product itself enables them to be more successful and enables them to understand the pricing, how quickly they can sell, and it creates a simple platform through which they can operate. That alone gives them room to grow and focus on their core business.
I think that’s hugely valuable. The better the product and the more people use it, the more it will support the growth of that sector.
And if you come back the biggest challenge and opportunity in the workspace industry, this is the customer. It’s the human at the center who is making decisions on where to go and work and why.
OfficeRnD is part of the proposition to that customer whether they see that or not. They feel it in the experience—when they go and use this space, book meeting rooms, receive their invoices. These are all critical parts of letting customers focus on their businesses while OfficeRnD helps Operators manage and build theirs.
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