Facebook’s head of real estate talks strategy

Facebook head of real estate Rob Cookson reveals how he manages a rapidly expanding 2m sq ft global estate and addresses industry fears that tech giants’ need for property developers is waning 

When it comes to successful real estate strategies, striving to keep up with the tech giants is as good a place as any to start. Over the past decade, these digital behemoths have not only grown to become some of the most powerful financial players in the world – the collective revenue of the big four: Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, stands at almost $1.6tn (£1.2tn), equivalent to the GDP of Australia – they have also taken centre stage as the most influential occupiers. From leading the charge on innovative workplace design to rolling out eye-wateringly ambitious property growth strategies – Amazon now reportedly owns 19% of prime commercial real estate in Seattle – these are the companies setting the pace.

But what about when you are the person responsible for keeping up that momentum? “I don’t see it as pressure,” says Rob Cookson, head of real estate at Facebook. “I don’t think, as an industry, the tech sector feels that way. But obviously we do feel the need to listen to demand and remain at the cutting edge in terms of what others are doing. So there is pressure. But it is around being in tune with what our people want.”

Sounds straightforward enough. But we are talking about a $30bn company here. One with nearly 21,000 employees working out of 49 offices covering more than 2m sq ft across the globe. And, bar the Menlo Park HQ campus in Silicon Valley, Cookson is the man responsible for the whole lot. That and managing the upcoming pipeline as the social media giant continues to grow and expand across the world. In the UK alone, the company’s workforce is set to double to 1,500 following its move to its new 227,000 sq ft Rathbone Square HQ in Fitzrovia, W1, last December. In more recent news, it is also set to sign a further deal for a new British HQ at King’s Cross. The additional space, expected to cover 700,000 sq ft over four buildings, would triple the size of its footprint in the capital.

Here, Cookson talks growth, tech adoption and workplace trends as well as addressing concerns over recent moves by tech giants – Facebook included – which suggest that not all of their upcoming property development will necessarily require much involvement from the real estate sector.

Developing without developers

On the subject of fears that tech giants could build up and manage their vast property portfolios to the point where they are in a position to develop without the need for real estate developers, Cookson says this is highly unlikely to become a blanket trend.

This is despite the fact that in July 2017 Facebook announced it would build a 1,500-home social housing scheme at Menlo Park in Silicon Valley, and WeWork announced it had raised $760m to focus on designing and developing its own buildings. Of course, this was all a neat primer for the announcement in October  that Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs is set to build a digital district in Toronto “from the internet up”.

“There is no broad brush that puts all developers into one category like that,” says Cookson, himself a property man first and foremost. Formerly head of global occupier services at DTZ, he worked with the likes of LinkedIn, Nike, Apple and Facebook, before joining the latter in 2014. “Some developers are very clued up and thoughtful when it comes to how and what to build,” he adds. “Others aren’t great.”

As for his thoughts on what Lord Foster, the architect behind Apple’s new $5bn California HQ, told EG in 2017 – that he would rather work with the tech giants directly than deal with developers – Cookson expertly maintains a sense of measured diplomacy. “We have certainly worked with a lot of big architects ourselves and we have great relationships with them,” he says. “But I wouldn’t say it is necessarily better to always work with tech companies directly. It depends on the developer and how in tune they are with their clients.”

He adds that as large, powerful technology companies have become more real estate-oriented, there is not always a separating of ways between the property and technology worlds, but rather a closer relationship.

“What we have found is that the ability to influence a scheme from the ground up is massively beneficial and we will see that happening more. This means that when you can get involved on a project early, having a good dialogue with the developer about why a certain building or spec works for us or not is crucial.

“Certainly as we grow, and we are looking now at planning for 2,000-5,000 workstations in a single location, we are trying to influence that conversation as much as possible.” 

Just trying to influence?

“If necessary, we will look at taking and developing buildings ourselves if we have the right opportunity and it gives us the feasibility we want.”

When pushed on what sort of “opportunity” he is referring to and whether there are plans in the pipeline, Cookson remains tight-lipped. “It depends very much on timing and location and how much we anticipate growing in that location,” he says.

While he won’t be drawn on the detail, it is clear that Facebook’s overriding real estate strategy involves growth, and lots of it, all around the world. It also reveals that even tech companies still like to have a 10-year plan.

Growing rapidly

We are growing very rapidly,” says Cookson. “This means that a lot of what I am trying to do is look ahead as far as I can. We have a three/five and 10-year plan as to how the real estate strategy should match the potential company growth profile. This can obviously be difficult to ascertain as it is hard to predict how fast we are going to grow in different locations. So what I do, with the best company information we have, is form projections.

“We ask ‘what happens if we grow at this rate here? And what happens if we don’t?’ From there we work up a strategy and build in flexibility and optionality.

“We have a very strong global planning function that looks at the business over a 10-year timeframe, but not just at pure headcount figures. It looks at how the business is evolving. And also how people are using our spaces. For example, we have recently found that the amount of video conferencing that takes place in different parts of the world has spiked rapidly. So we need to respond to that with rooms that work.”

The new London HQ, a 227,000 sq ft office that Facebook took in its entirety when it moved in last December, is another prime example. Flexible enough to handle a 50% increase in the company’s UK workforce, taking it up to 1,500, Cookson says the 30,000 sq ft floorplates allow for built-in agility. “The floorplates are very efficient,” he says. “If one team grows faster than the other, we can accommodate that.”

As for the choice of building itself? “We liked the fact we could take the whole thing. It worked well time wise and it is a great base and space. Then there was the location. It is not only in the heart of the West End but, with Crossrail coming online in December this year, there are the improved transport links and great access to Heathrow, which was really attractive.”

He adds that general trends in the company are often led by demographics, or rather changing demographics.

“As we grow, we have a more varied group of people working for us,” he says. “Standard layouts are very open-plan with bench-style space. We have realised we need to start introducing quiet downtime space, so there is an option to change environments. We have built these changes into our future programme.”

Global strategy

As for whether Facebook’s real estate strategy is pan-global or culturally nuanced, Cookson says it is a bit of both.

“We really want to have a global look and feel and functionality in our space,” he says. “Whether you are badging into a Facebook office in Singapore, London, New York or California, you should recognise where you are. We have the same tools for all of the buildings for booking meeting rooms, we have the same wayfinding, the same look and feel, so you should really feel at home straight away when you come into the office.

“But we try to introduce local cultural elements, whether through food or the look of the space. And we also try to represent what Facebook is doing in that particular office so it has a relevance to the people working there.”

On campuses – Willow Park is set to become a “company town” to support the Menlo Park HQ with 1,500 homes – Cookson does not see this becoming a global phenomenon: “One of the reasons we provide that campus and all of the amenities is that it isn’t available readily in the local community. In terms of creating the Facebook culture, we very much try to replicate the teamwork side of things within spaces. But as for planning on building a London campus any time in the immediate future, that is not on the agenda.”

With 49 offices covering more than 2m sq ft across the globe and a role overseeing the physical footprint of one of the biggest companies in the world, it’s probably about the only thing that’s not.

CV: Robert Cookson

A partner at DTZ in Sweden between 2000 and 2006 responsible for Swedish corporate global services and Nordic co-ordination, Cookson became head of the US global corporate services team in 2006 before joining Facebook in September 2014.