Inabelle Fang is Senior Real Estate Manager at Willis Towers Watson where she manages projects across various countries in Europe and Asia, including strategy setting, transaction management, through to design, change management and construction. Mike Petrusky asks Inabelle about her experiences creating inspiring agile workspaces to enhance employee engagement and how the pandemic has enabled culture and mindset changes around flexible working. Mike and Inabelle dive deeper into some of the topics first discussed during the WORKTECH “Work from Anywhere End User Panel” and they share an optimistic view about how workplace leaders can reimagine their real estate and management strategies as we head into the future of work.
Ep. 176: Flexible Work, Agile Real Estate Strategies and the Future Workplace
Full Episode Transcript
Mike P: This is the Workplace Innovator Podcast where we talk with corporate real estate and facility management leaders about the industry trends and technologies impacting your organization. This show is powered by iOFFICE, the leading employee experience- focused IWMS software that delivers real- time data and mobile tools to help you intelligently manage your digital workplace.
Mike P: Hey folks, and welcome to the show. It’s Mike P and I’m so glad you are here because today I am excited to continue a conversation that was started about a month ago during a workplace conference in the UK. I had the honor of hosting a panel discussion for work tech, and you can check out the audio from that conversation back on episode 171 of the podcast. And during that discussion, we talked with end users in the world of real estate and facilities about working from anywhere and all that is encompassed with that, the benefits and the challenges. And I felt like the conversation was cut short because we only had about 25, 30 minutes together, and there was so much more to discuss. So, I have invited back one of those panelists today and her name is Inabelle Fang. So please welcome Inabelle. Hello there.
Inabelle Fang: Hi. Hi, Mike. Hi. Hi, everyone.
Mike P: Good to talk to you again.
Inabelle Fang: Yeah.
Mike P: How have you been the last few weeks since our big virtual stage performance together?
Inabelle Fang: It has gone by very, very quickly and yeah, I can’t believe it’s almost a month ago, so yeah.
Mike P: Yeah. It was great talking with you and David and Sid. And I do hope to have those gentlemen on the show at some point in the future too. But during that panel Inabelle, I didn’t have a chance to get to know more about you personally. So that’s what this podcast is great for is getting to know some of the people in our industry and folks, if you didn’t hear that original conversation, let me introduce Inabelle more appropriately. Inabelle is the Senior Real Estate Manager at Willis Towers Watson, based in the UK. But you mentioned during that panel, Inabelle, you cover quite a broad geography. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you do and where you do it?
Inabelle Fang: Sure. So, like Mike, you said, so I’m based in the UK, and I manage the Western Europe portfolio as well as the Asia portfolio. So, within Western Europe, my responsibility is France, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Poland, and in Asia, I’m currently more focused on China and Japan where there are activities. And for my role, I’m a Senior Real Estate Manager. So, Willis Towers Watson take a more different approach. Instead of traditionally having a transaction team that pass on to design construction, we have a real estate manager that manage the front stakeholder management strategy, planning, the financial analysis, the transactions, and then design constructions all the way to the end, which is a fantastic and challenging role.
Mike P: I imagine. It must be, and so interesting because you shared a lot of the stories of the work you were doing in the past decade or so, I suppose, around workplace strategy and agile and flexible work. So, you were not new to this world of distributed work that seemed to be accelerated during the pandemic. This goes back more than 18 months ago, right?
Inabelle Fang: Absolutely. Yes. So, Willis Towers Watson, I think we’re quite ahead of the, I guess in the industry in terms of flexible agile working. So, we started the journey back in 2016 where we had the opportunity to do so. And that opportunity was basically the merger of Willis and Towers Watson together. So, after the merger and we’re looking at integration, bringing the teams together to create synergies, and that really allowed us to look at our workplace strategy and how we think we can better support the employees and the managers to work in the office going forward. So, we started to adopt agile, working, flexible working from that point onwards.
Mike P: Cool. And we’re going to dive deeper into that during this conversation, but Inabelle, before we go there, I like to get to know more of the story of my guests. How did you end up where you are today?
Inabelle Fang: Sure. I am originally from Taiwan in a family with three siblings with me being the oldest. And I have always been the crazy wild one, the rebel in the family crosstalk.
Mike P: Ooh, I want to know more about that.
Inabelle Fang: Where I like to dream, I like to explore. So, I’ve always wanted to explore the western world as we see it from where we are geographically in Taiwan. During my studies, I did do a one- year exchange in Belgium, where I continued with my French, and that really helped me hone the French language skill. But then afterwards, after I graduated from university, I applied for my Master in the UK at University of Warwick, which was a great year. And that led me to the decision of wanting to at least have a year or two’s job experience working in the UK. And I finally landed my first job in Manchester, which has nothing to do real estate, but I still remember when I applied for my first real estate job in London. Like everything in life, sometimes it’s… Anyway, skillsets are important, experience are important, but also the opportunity that come up at that time, and most important, the person that sees your potential and willing to trust in you and believe that you will do a great job. And that was my first manager in real estate. When I worked for Johnson Control as the conduit in Marsh and McLennan Companies. And he gave me that opportunity to open the door into real estate, and I started everything from there, learned everything on the job. And yeah, it took me to where I am today. So, until today, I’m still forever grateful for Simon, the manager’s name, for giving me that chance into real estate.
Mike P: That’s wonderful. Yes. Someone who can see your potential and be a mentor is invaluable in all our lives. So that’s a great, inspiring story. And we like to inspire on this podcast, Inabelle. So, let’s keep that going. And let me ask you this. Do you have a favorite motivational quote you could share with my audience?
Inabelle Fang: Yeah, I have a lot and I’ll probably just use one that I still encourage myself with. It’s from Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook.
Mike P: Sure, yeah.
Inabelle Fang: So, the quote that she said that really resonate with me is that there’s just no perfect fit when you’re looking for the next big thing to do, and you have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you rather than the other way around. And the ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have. And more specifically for women, it starts, we need to shift for thinking I might not be ready to do that, to thinking, well, I want to do that. And I will learn by doing it. I will make it happen. That’s just so powerful for me.
Mike P: Awesome. I love that. As the father of two daughters, I love that quote. I often ask about music, Inabelle, but you mentioned before we hit record on today’s conversation, that Mandarin is your favorite type of music. So, I’m going to have to ask you for some recommendations there, because I love different international music and it sounds very relaxing. Whenever it comes to mind, when I hear that, it’s going to probably be very relaxing, help me sleep or help me while I’m doing my concentration work.
Inabelle Fang: The time I like to listen to music the most, and Mandarin music, is when I shower. And I do like to bring my speaker in and play it. So, with the steam of shower, the deep voice, and I will be singing along and that’s my destressing period of the time of the day, basically.
Mike P: When you mention Mandarin, it just puts in mind that it’s just a very relaxing setting. So, I’m going to take your recommendation and add that to my morning routine. That sounds wonderful. Well, let’s talk more about some of the topics we discussed during that work tech panel. So, heading into the fall, Inabelle, what are some of the most significant trends in the world of real estate and the workplace today?
Inabelle Fang: Sure. I think personally, I think it is hybrid working and for a lot of companies that are already considering or implementing agile working pre- COVID, this will be a continuation of it. And with COVID being an enabler of, or actually a testimony to the way that flexible working can work. I think this will become the major focus in a real estate workplace strategy and implemented patient going forward.
Mike P: Yes. I want to ask more about your pre- COVID strategy experiences and what, if anything, you’ve learned over these past 18 months when it comes to how human beings respond, what are some of the drivers for human behavior and what about the pandemic has changed your thinking or what you believe will be the approach going forward?
Inabelle Fang: I think pre- COVID, office has always been considered as a place that you go to work to. So, whether it’s meeting, whether it’s you do focus work or whether it is to socialize, I think office is the main environment for work, full- stop. So even when pre- COVID companies are implementing agile working, it is still under that concept of, we need to create a more agile space. We provide more options for people to be able to come to work, but also there are some flexibilities if people want to work remotely as well as from home. And I think COVID has really changed that in the sense that people work from home, and they probably have… Some people, I have to say, some people do struggle with working from home alone, or they don’t have the environment to do so. So, they are very eager to come back to the office. But a lot of people also through the COVID experience realize that they don’t actually need to go into the office to do focus work, to do individual work, writing emails, writing reports, et cetera. They can do it equally at home. And it really is a realization for people that if we can actually cut out the long commute time, for example, for me, it’s an hour and a half to the office and two hours coming back home, if we can cut out that from three and a half hours, we can actually use that to complete the work earlier. And then you have a better work- life balance. You log off and you go spend time with your family or do things that you’d like. So it is an option of having better work-life balance as well. So I think going forward, the hybrid working model will still be agile working, but it will be providing more choices in a work context that better suit individual need. Instead of having to go to the office to complete everything, you can choose what works the best for you. So, the office is still there. The environment is still there for you to use, or whatever you think it’s appropriate with, whether it’s a client meeting, video call or socializing with your team, brainstorm, et cetera. It will be there, but it’s just not a place that people have to go into as a definition of work.
Mike P: I agree. Exactly. So we know that one size doesn’t fit all people or organizations, of course, and we have to balance the needs of the organization and those business drivers for the company with the expectations and needs of employees. How, as a workplace leader, or as a real estate leader, do you even begin to address that, coming up with a strategy to the individual when we’re talking about hundreds or even thousands of employees?
Inabelle Fang: Yeah. So I think nowadays the managers play, managers or leaders or country leads, or even company heads, they play a very, very important role in trying to understand what is it that your employee need. And it is really trying to listen and be empathetic because everybody’s situation is different. You don’t know what one person had gone through or what realization have they gone through throughout the pandemic. So let’s not try to impose on them on what we think, what the future should be looking like or what a workplace should be looking like. It really is trying to listen and understand, what is it that companies can do going forward to better support the employees.
Mike P: I like that a lot. And it’s really a culture question, right? I mean, a culture that was open and transparent and understanding of individuals and trying to bring the best out of our employees, if that was your culture before the pandemic hit, that has probably been enhanced during this past 18 months. But if not, some companies are probably really struggling with that and it comes down to individuals and managers and rethinking our approach. And you mentioned that mindset is very important in all of this, right? Tell me more about that.
Inabelle Fang: Yeah. When we’re implementing agile working, and I think that from the same situation with lots of different companies, sometimes there are push- backs and resistance, from whether it’s managers or employees, because they are very used to a set way of working style that they have adhered to for the past couple of years. And they see no reason for change. If it’s not broken, why fix it, right? So there are this natural resistance to change in any kind of change from culture. But I think, like mentioned before, COVID really has become an enabler for people to actually see, well, agile working is not a bad thing. Flexible working is actually beneficial to me. And that is worth a thousand words than trying to preach it to them when they actually was able to experience it day in, day out, 24/7, of what that flexibility could mean going forward. I think, and lots of surveys online have actually shown that, post- COVID, people who are more resistant to flexible working have now shifted their mindset to,” Well, actually, it’s not a bad thing. And actually, I can consider working two days or three days into the office, but not every day in the office.” That is a very interesting mindset change. I think another thing to mention is also to your point, I think there’s more to the last question on the culture piece. Not only does the companies have an open minded culture, but also be mindful of the culture from a country perspective, regional perspective, because one thing we often don’t realize, or easily are forgotten is that there’s more to polar geography. The world is a wonderful place, full of different cultures, backgrounds, ways of thinking, et cetera. And it’s very easy to create a strategy from one angle and not considering the other cultural perspective. So what suits for the United States might be very different from what suits for China or what suits for Brazil. So you really need to understand the cultural concept before you start creating the workplace strategy and be mindful of that.
Mike P: Excellent reminder. Thank you, Inabelle. That’s good stuff. Another thing we can use to help smooth things along is technology. And I wanted to get your thoughts on this because I work for a company that offers workplace technology that allows organizations to put in the hand of their employees some tools that give them that feeling of control and the ability to know where they’re going, who they’re seeing, feel comfortable about the space they’re going to be using, reserving that space, making sure it’s clean, all those types of practical things that enable a better employee experience and may encourage people to feel more comfortable returning to offices. So what technology tools do you think might be important that will empower employees to feel good about their hybrid working?
Inabelle Fang: Sure. So we all know that technology is the future and technology, IoT devices have influenced our life from left, right and center. And I have to say, I think real estate, generally speaking, are slightly more behind in terms of the technology adoptation, but we have seen some catching up over the recent years. And one tool that I think is tremendously useful, and lots of companies are implementing it already nowadays, or majority of them is probably considering adopting, is using the sensors. So having the sensors to actually understand the utilization of workspace, be it workstations, meeting room, collaboration spaces, but to really understand how the workspace is being used, how frequent it is, is very key. And I think it would be even greater if we can have a full and seamless interaction between the sensor and other technology. So not sensor as a stand- alone that just provides you with data, but also that seamless integration with other technologies, such as user interface, such as meeting room booking, the wellness factor, the air quality monitoring, the lighting, et cetera. So create a system, a platform, using sensor annex extension, to support the enhancement of human experience instead of adding burden and additional things to manage. The last thing we want is technology as a burden and for people to say,” Oh gosh, now I have to check the data again.” And then whatever. But really making technology, creating a better human experience and a seamless experience for people that manage it.
Mike P: Excellent. Wow. Well time is escaping us very quickly here, Inabelle. I wanted to ask you if you have any other advice for my audience about how to help their organizations navigate the future, or just being a positive contributor to their team as we head into the future together.
Inabelle Fang: I’m a true believer of communication. And I think the best advice I can give is open communication. It’s being transparent with your employees as leaders, workplace leaders. Listen, and be empathetic.
Mike P: Exactly. I agree with that fully, Inabelle. Before I let you go, I saw on your LinkedIn profile that you are also the founder at Halo. What is that all about?
Inabelle Fang: Yeah. So this is one exciting project, started as a project that come out of my MBA and I really did it to foster my entrepreneurial mindset. So our project is really to use the drone technology to solve the search within search and rescue. So just a quick highlight, on average, it takes 42 hours to resolve a call-out and 35% of that call- out involve a life or death threatening injury. So we identify a very big gap between the current situation, the needs, the pain points of the customers in finding people and what our drone can do, which is basically a drone that has artificial intelligence that can quickly pick up a lost person within a vast rugged terrain. So very excited about this journey. I’m very excited about how we turn this student project into a startup, and I look forward to more adventures on this front as well.
Mike P: Wow. That is exciting. Very cool. Solving the search in search and rescue is what I’m reading here. So everyone check out Inabelle on LinkedIn, connect with her there and learn more about not just her work in real estate, but also Halo. Very exciting stuff. Inabelle, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us here on the Workplace Innovator Podcast.
Inabelle Fang: No problem. Thank you. It’s my pleasure, Mike.
Mike P: Awesome.
Inabelle Fang: Good to chat again with you.
Mike P: And there you have it, everybody. Inabelle Fang of Willis Towers Watson and Halo, talking about her experiences and sharing her insights around the future workplace. I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. And again, I hope to have the other two members of our Work Tech Work From Anywhere end user panel discussion on the show in the weeks to come. David and Sid, you’re up next, my friends. Can’t wait to hear more about what you are thinking and doing and how it might help my audience as we continue on this journey together to encourage and inspire each other to be a workplace innovator. Peace out.
Mike P: You’ve been listening to the Workplace Innovator Podcast. I hope you found this discussion beneficial as we work together to build partnerships that lead to innovative workplace solutions. For more information about how iOFFICE can help you create an employee-centric workspace by delivering digital technology that enhances the employee experience, visit iOFFICEcorp.com.
Connect with Inabelle on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/inabellefang/
Listen to the WORKTECH “Work from Anywhere” Panel: https://workplaceinnovator.iofficecorp.com/podcast/worktech-work-from-anywhere-conference-end-user-expert-panel-discussion
Learn more about Willis Towers Watson: https://www.willistowerswatson.com/en-US
Discover free resources and explore past interviews at: https://www.workplaceinnovator.com/
Connect with Mike on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mikepetrusky/
Share your thoughts with Mike via email: podcast@iOFFICECORP.com