How CRE & FM teams can use agile to be agile

Black and White business people at a conference table

Real estate has historically been a low-tech industry. And when you consider that some of the larger players have been around for 100 years (or more), it makes sense. “Why fix what isn’t broken?” is a refrain familiar among industry veterans. But corporate real estate (CRE) is now at a pivotal juncture: Adopt new technologies using a business strategy built around tech, or be left behind.

COVID-19 sharpened the need for and reliance on technology. And the return-to-office and hybrid workplace model stretched many organizations’ tech to its limits. Cleaning, desk-booking, video conferencing, air-quality monitoring, and so many other new tasks that businesses face require more sophisticated technology than pre-pandemic. The companies that adopt that new tech face challenges, including resistance from employees and leaders.

“One major obstacle to user adoption of anything new—an app, a process, whatever it is—is that it’s new,” explained Jennifer Brownson, enterprise agile transformation leader at BMC Software. “You’re asking people to work in a way that’s unfamiliar and uncomfortable.”

Brownson works within the international agile community to foster adoption across multiple industries. She understands the wildly different challenges each industry is up against, and she leverages agile to address those problems directly and efficiently.

So how can your company adopt new tech and more efficient processes while ensuring employees and leaders actually use them? How can you overcome resistance, ensure enterprise-wide alignment, and deliver compelling returns on your tech investments?

Go agile.

What is agile?

Initially designed for software development (think coding, testing, quality control), agile is a methodology for managing projects that completely reimagines how work gets done. In agile, you build in small iterations and get them in front of people. You ask, “Does this work for you? Is it what you expected? Do we need to continue moving forward with it?” And then you keep iterating. If you fail, you fail early.

Before agile, projects moved in a linear, sequential manner. Take, for example, the return-to-office process. First, you determine the business requirements. Then, you consult with HR about people and IT about tech. When those teams are done, you proceed to execution. Known as the “waterfall” method for its cascading steps, it has dominated the workplace for decades. Agile turns this entire model on its head and enables teams to work on their respective parts of a project simultaneously. Where waterfall keeps the end user/customer in the dark until the “big reveal” months or even years down the road, agile gets customer buy-in in short increments (often biweekly).

“Agile is about building the right thing at the right time in the right way,” said Brownson. “It’s about making sure what you’re building is going to help users and help your business strategy. One of the key values of agile is transparency. The team should be able to answer, ‘Where are we at?’ at all times.”

This is a game-changer. All of a sudden, the business side can see what the CRE side is doing. It’s exciting and, at times, a bit unnerving for workers and leaders alike.

“Agile cuts through established organizational silos to get stuff done, but it’s a huge culture change for companies that are hierarchical with traditional management structures,” Brownson said.

But the payoff can be massive. Once everyone involved understands each other and can see the status of a project at all times, team relationships get tighter, and things begin to coalesce into efficiency.

Why (and how) should you use agile in CRE?

Agile emerged as a streamlined way to solve business problems, and the tenets transcend the specific challenges of any industry. But that doesn’t mean you need to be all agile all the time. In fact, waterfall works for certain types of projects: those that are repeatable, extremely predictable, and have parameters that won’t change much from start to finish. Some projects and initiatives, however, lend themselves perfectly to an agile structure—especially when paired with a strong change management plan.

New technology deployment is one place agile shines. CRE has historically been slow to adopt technology, but as “software eats the world” (and the pandemic-driven shift to hybrid work takes hold), our world becomes increasingly tech-dependent. New software often brings a steep learning curve. By deploying it in small increments and getting feedback and buy-in, those learnings can shape the rest of the rollout in real time.

“Understand people and what their processes are. Once you get your hands on that, you can timebox a rollout in two weeks. Learn as much as you can, and iterate,” Brownson said.

Business intelligence work—gathering data and analytics and generating reports and insights—is complex and requires input from across your organization. Agile simplifies and shortens timelines and offers visibility into the process as it progresses.

Likewise, facilities management (FM), especially capital projects, becomes more efficient with an agile approach. Your IT, FM, C-suite, and even HR teams can work in tandem on their respective parts and share findings, so the project can pivot in real time and be on time.

Sustainability efforts should also be powered by agile. Eco-friendly projects require heavy involvement from multiple teams across disciplines, all with slightly different motivations and biases. Agile unifies the project goals and distills the work into manageable pieces.

As Brownson explained, “Agile brings people to the same place. When I first started working with agile, I understood immediately that so much of it is about human connection and how we think—and how we can best work together.”

CRE is a complex organism, constantly in flux. Agile is, well, agile. With it, you can react and adapt to changes at lightning speed. Ultimately, winners in this extremely competitive market are the ones that use an agile approach—to new technology deployment, to processes, and to their CRE portfolios.