When trying to understand where the industry is going and what tomorrow’s commercial real estate workforce will look like, it’s tough to find a more plugged-in person than Steve Weikal, MSRED, MCP, JD, the head of industry relations and CRE tech lead at the MIT Center for Real Estate. A lecturer and researcher at one of the preeminent academic institutions in the world, he has seen how the pandemic has spiked the already-growing interest in the quality of one’s working environment.
“COVID-19 certainly accelerated the attention on health and well-being, a trend that was already underway but has perhaps redefined what we think of as ‘healthy buildings,’” he says. “Also, we’re seeing a tremendous focus on climate and its impact on real estate. The [MIT Center for Real Estate] is preparing to launch a new real estate climate initiative, and we have an existing research program focused on healthy buildings.”
Considering the long-lasting and permanent changes across CRE markets, technology will be at the forefront of the industry’s solutions or improvements, primarily in understanding how people interact with buildings and workspaces.
“Tech will continue to help us better understand the human interface with real estate — with what the users really want and what their concerns are,” Weikal says. “Of course, emergency alerts, building access, cleaning processes, contact tracing, etc., will be an increasingly seamless experience.”
Hurdles have always existed in implementing proptech, but the fundamental changes to the market related to COVID-19 have shifted people’s perspectives in leveraging potential tech solutions.
“Tech will continue to help us better understand the human interface with real estate — with what the users really want and what their concerns are." — Steve Weikal
“Early in the pandemic, proptech activity paused but then quickly resumed its pace, though there was a shift from nice-to-have solutions to have-to-have solutions,” Weikal says. “Existing ventures had to pivot, and new companies were created to address the challenges of a dramatically different business landscape. The shift was enabled by an immense amount of venture capital flowing into the space.”
The head of industry relations at the MIT Center for Real Estate, Weikal is also focused on building and maintaining networks, which have traditionally been much more low-tech endeavors. As business aims to resume more in-person activities, he encourages everyone to be mindful and intentional when doing so.
“Like everyone, we’ve had an exhausting number of [virtual] meetings!” he says. “In fact, given that our alumni are located in dozens of countries in multiple time zones, online virtual meetings have perhaps enabled better connections than before.
“My sense is that for a while, limited in-person opportunities will have to be very intentional in their goals. Later, when the health threats subside, we may all have to relearn the social relationship-building process. Some aspects will be permanently automated with the help of technology, such as data mining for prospecting and virtual assistants.”
In his work in academia, Weikal is also directly interfacing with the next generation of CRE professionals, whom he sees as bringing a new skill set to the industry.
“Those now entering the profession are the first wave of ‘digital natives,’ that is, those for whom technology is deeply ingrained in their everyday lives,” he says. “They have high expectations about being provided the tools necessary for them to be successful in their role. This means that a nice website and some proprietary spreadsheet models won’t retain talent that is more accustomed to artificial intelligence, data analytics, and social media.”
In a wider sense, CRE will continue to compete with other professionals in attracting talent. Knowing that, the industry has to be proactive in reaching high school and college students to introduce CRE as an attractive, viable career.
“I’m not sure that students at the undergraduate level know much about commercial real estate and the opportunities it provides — we’re competing with finance, technology, media, and biotech, which are in the headlines every day — so the industry could engage more proactively,” Weikal says. “An organization called SEO [Seizing Every Opportunity] has a great program for Black, Latinx, and Native American college students that arranges internship placement at a number of well-recognized real estate firms. To build a talent pipeline, however, we may need to give students exposure at an even younger age. The [MIT] Center for Real Estate participates in the national REEX program, which is a summer program for high school-aged students from underrepresented communities that provides them with experiential learning and exposure to the industry.”