After more than 20 years at the helm of Befimmo, the Belux office REIT, Benoît De Blieck, the long-time CEO has come to the end of his mandate. Yet, this is not the end of the road for the self-professed “workaholic” from Belgium.
“Retirement is not a word I want to hear,” says De Blieck firmly. He has no plans for retirement at all just yet. The new CEO, Jean-Philip Vroninks, will be joining Befimmo in the coming months. But even then, De Blieck will sit as a non-executive director on the company board as foreseen until the end of his mandate in April 2022 and has plans to continue working beyond then.
“I will be retiring, but I feel young,” he explains. “I am ready to share my experience!”
In the meantime, his next role on the board will be to ensure a smooth transition with the new CEO and help the business see through the transformation of the company strategy, which has been ongoing under his leadership since 2016 and is, De Blieck is sure, one of his proudest achievement while at Befimmo.
“A few years ago, we were simply a provider of square metres,” De Blieck says. “Now we have become a facilitator of corporate life, of entrepreneurs and the people that work for them. When you think about it, this is actually an enormous change.”
Create environments where people can work, meet, share and live
Such a change has led to a revamp of the company’s internal and external identity. In this sense, more than any other, says De Blieck, the process has been transformative and, critically, has taken time.
“We must meet the expectation of our tenants, who require inspiring spaces,” De Blieck explains. “But this is not as simple as changing a few designs and letting as many square metres as we can.”
Letting as many square metres as possible may have been the company strategy ten years ago, De Blieck admits, but as the company has grown from just five people to more than 90 under his stewardship, so the industry has moved on with Befimmo at the forefront of this movement.
Now, the conversation is no longer “How can we lease more square metres?”. Instead, De Blieck has led the company to consider what it really means to be a “facilitator of corporate life”. How does this change the purpose of the business? And what does this mean for its talent, its personnel and its offering?
For De Blieck, it means increasing the number of services available and ensuring the availability of varied use spaces whenever feasible. Gone will be the days of packing colleagues into open plan areas and maximising the number of desks per square metre. Soon, most offices will be more experience focused, he explains, leading to a demand for quality spaces.
Facilitate the working life of enterprises, entrepreneurs, and their teams
“Companies have to provide attractive spaces to hire talent. This means improvements in employee welfare and the environment, which are both integrated into development and design. This may mean fewer desks, but overall, offices should be more efficient because there is so much more that can be done in and around them.”
The list of services is extensive: daycare centres, laundry, fitness centres and cafeterias. And this is only the first step.
“The second step is about building in flexibility,” says De Blieck. According to him, Befimmo has found that traditional tenants who work on the upper floor offices in their buildings are heading down to the collaborative coworking spaces on the lower floors. “
De Blieck characterises the subtle shift this will bring about as “open space working rather than open plan offices.” What this means in practice is shifting away from the density of many current offices where we work separately in great numbers and fight over scarce resources, such as available meeting rooms and empty creative spaces, and moving towards working together smarter.
“People will probably now come to the offices to work together, not alone,” he predicts. “That will be the difference, and it is about much more than that. We are developing a network with Silversquare, the subsidiary we acquired in 2017.”
Silversquare is the Belgian pioneer in coworking, and with them, Befimmo is developing a Belux network of workspaces to become a one-stop-shop for all different kinds of workspace solutions. Ideas include exploring satellite working – a network of local offices close to where people live that serves a different purpose to the old-fashioned, enormous and singular regional HQ office.
In order to bring about this change in a meaningful way, Befimmo is currently developing an app through which it plans to give control to the users to achieve maximum flexibility. “Now on their phones, our users will individually be able to book a desk, a car parking space, block meeting rooms, order lunch and so on. This should allow our buildings to facilitate greater collaboration, growth and innovation.”
De Blieck is, however, quick to dispel the notion that these types of services will be the sole preserve of the major corporates, instead stating that these new solutions will be available for all.
“We have all sorts of tenants, and these types of services are attractive, whoever they are,” explains De Blieck. He waves away any notion of cynical intentions or clichés about big banks whose workers arrive in the basement gym with a child in arms at 6 AM and leave only after eating dinner at their desks. “This is not about one type of tenant versus the other but the future of the workplace.”
And yet, it seemed that the future of the workplace would be completely transformed at the beginning of last year as working from home was government ordered in countries across Europe and beyond.
But, in what seems like his typically jovial, affable style, De Blieck dismisses any concern about the demise of the office.
“To be sincere, I never believed that people would never go back to the office,” says De Blieck with a friendly chuckle. “It’s a question of attachment to the company and the need to work together with people as a team in order to create value.”
And, indeed, there are two major trends that have been accentuated by the pandemic, as far as offices are concerned, says the Belgian. The first is the speed of change but not its direction. Everything we see now was already in planning, but the lockdowns have caused businesses to accelerate changes to remain relevant.
The second accentuation is trust amongst colleagues. Businesses have been forced to continue as before with their employees out of sight, and it seems that productivity has remained stable, and work continues to get done whether people are present in the office or not.
“We looked at our own Belgian figures this morning,” De Blieck highlights, “and the results are not so different from a year ago. People are getting on with the job like they were before, but we hear and see more and more that people miss face-to-face contact with their colleagues!”