From left to right: moderator Eiji Enomoto, representative director, executive vice president, Nomura Real Estate Urban Net; Akihiko Tobe, general manager, smart society division, society 5.0 and urban development division, social innovation, Hitachi; Robert Mankin, partner, NBBJ; Bill Lee, Harvard University; and Scott Sato, executive adviser, Pasona Group; speaking at the ULI Japan Fall Conference in Tokyo.

While new office space paradigms are emerging in response to changes in technology and work styles, there is no consensus about the “best” future for workspace. A panel of real estate investors, occupiers, and corporate real estate experts discussed the future of workspace at the ULI Japan Fall Conference, held in Tokyo in November.

The panel discussion followed a keynote presentation from Robert Mankin, partner at architect NBBJ, who spoke about what he calls “the generative office,” workspaces designed to drive innovation and who also took part in the discussion.

The audience saw a video from Microsoft, which served as a catalyst for the discussion by demonstrating how an artificial intelligence–driven building might work in the future on its campus. A staff member was shown to be in constant touch with the building management system, which rebooked a meeting room in order to better accommodate her meeting, suggested she save time en route by going to a different coffee shop with a shorter wait time, and timing her laps of the campus running track at the end of the day.

The audience reaction suggested that some found the idea of a constant link between staff and a computer management system somewhat oppressive, but Bill Lee, previously director of real estate strategies at Microsoft and now a lecturer at Harvard University, said: “Don’t be afraid of the future!”

The major factor in the changing ways that people and buildings work is data, Lee said. “We have moved into a data era and humans cannot process all the data that is available; we need technology to do it for us.” This means that people will work differently, outsourcing data processing to machines, he said.

In offices, data is changing the way that space is operated—building management systems can switch off air-conditioning and lights in empty space—and occupied: data shows how and where office space is used, enabling occupiers to take less space. “In the future, companies will need a chief technical officer for design,” said Lee.

However, Mankin pointed out that data privacy laws in a number of countries could prevent firms from using data about their staff to an intrusive degree.

The fast-moving data world is also something that humans need respite from, Mankin said, which was one of the reasons for more occupiers to take interest in wellness. Akihiko Tobe, general manager, smart society division at Hitachi, said: “In Japan, employee satisfaction is gradually becoming as important as productivity.”

Both Tobe and Scott Sato, executive adviser to Japanese recruitment firm Pasona, noted that Japan’s labor shortage meant that companies had to offer better space and better terms to attract staff. Pasona’s Tokyo headquarters is notable for its green exterior and internal urban farm, which is designed to encourage Japanese people to pursue careers in agriculture. The firm also has a high proportion of female staff, which has made it a market leader in terms of offering flexible working and nursery facilities.

Lee and Mankin had conflicting opinions about the virtues of the traditional office campus compared with central business district (CBD) office space. Lee supported the suburban campus model for business space, saying, “It is easier to bring the best elements of the city into a suburban campus than to bring the best aspects of the suburban campus to the city.”

Mankin, however, is a committed urbanist, believing that companies benefit from the life of the city around them. He also noted that CBD locations were preferred by younger workers. NBBJ designed the Shenzhen headquarters campus for Chinese tech firm Tencent, where the average age of staff is 27.

Lee pointed out that real estate decisions were more likely to be based on cost than any other factor. Microsoft’s decision to build a headquarters campus was driven by lower suburban land costs, he said, while Amazon took advantage of high vacancy in downtown Seattle when siting its headquarters there.

Lee also pointed to an interesting trend in Silicon Valley, where companies now prefer staff to be on site rather than working from home, in order to encourage collaboration and innovation. A question to the audience found that 68 percent worked from home on occasion, which panel moderator Eiji Enomoto, executive vice president of Nomura Real Estate Urban Net, said seemed high for Japan, changing working practices notwithstanding.

In his opening remarks to the conference, Nicholas Brooke, chairman of ULI Asia Pacific, had asked: “How do we design for the future when it is hard to see even two years ahead?” Mankin took up this point, suggesting that the construction industry lagged in its use of new technology and would have to adapt in order to make buildings flexible and adaptable.