Julie Whelan has one grounding piece of advice for any organization that wants its teams to work together in person more often: “You have to answer the question, Why?” Whelan says. “If it’s just because we want to get people back to the way that it was, then that’s not enough,” she says. “You have to create a purpose.

“That purpose might be seeing teammates, or it might be, for others, getting access to quiet space,” says Whelan, who leads a global team of researchers at CBRE, the real estate and facilities management company. “It might be getting access to the technology that makes you even more effective, or it might be a combination of those things. But figuring out what that purpose is is really important.”

In this episode of WorkLab , Whelan shares the attributes and activities that draw people into a workplace, and she unpacks the trends shaping office real estate in general. Whelan, CBRE’s global head of occupier thought leadership, also offers practical advice for leaders deciding what’s next for their own organization’s investments in real estate, including three different metrics to study:

  1. Space use. It’s “really about tracking movement within your office and understanding how well the areas of your physical office location are being utilized over time, so that you can actually change it in real time to suit the way your employees use the space,” Whelan says. Sensors can help find out which spaces draw more people—and it might not be the ones you expect.

  2. Commute patterns. “The shorter the employee commute is, the more likely they are to attend in-office on a more frequent basis, and that is especially true of those people that have commutes under 30 minutes,” Whelan says. A deep understanding of the commute patterns of your employees is essential for planning real estate investments.

  3. What employees want. “When it comes to what [employees] need from the office and what they need for their function to be successful and effective in the office, we need to study that—and we owe it to employees to study that,” Whelan says.

WorkLab is a place for experts to share their insights and opinions. As students of the future of work, Microsoft values inputs from a diverse set of voices. That said, the opinions and findings of the experts we interview are their own and do not reflect Microsoft’s own research or positions.

You can follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Here’s a transcript of the Episode 7 conversation.

TONYA MOSLEY: This is WorkLab , the podcast from Microsoft. I’m your host, Tonya Mosley. On WorkLab , we hear from leading thinkers on the future of work—economists, technologists, researchers. They all share surprising data and explore the trends transforming the way we work.

JULIE WHELAN: You have to create a purpose. This idea of purpose is extremely critical in getting people to come back to the office. You have to answer, Why? If it’s just because we want to get people back the way that it was, then that’s not enough.