How difficult can it be to develop software?

Back in 2011 Paul, Ed and I founded EVORA Global, a niche sustainability consultancy focussed on the real estate investment market, driven by a passion to make a difference.

A year later we were winning more clients, gathering an abundance of data and our spreadsheets started bursting at the seams. Although there was a proliferation of energy management software around, sustainability software was thin on the ground. After a very brief relationship with a small outfit, which went bust even before the ink had dried on our agreement, we made the bold move of deciding to do it ourselves – I mean, how difficult could it be?

It’s worth noting at this point none of us had any software experience but when you’re budding entrepreneurs why let a minor point of naivety and ignorance get in the way of a great idea and enthusiasm.

My friend Pete, a software developer who had recently been made redundant, and had kicked off a mobile app business, was keen to support us. So, with a hefty budget of £30k supported by a ‘detailed’ design sketched out on numerous bits of paper, Pete launched off to create the best and latest sustainability software to wow our clients. And amazingly it was pretty good. How and why on earth do companies spend millions on software development we thought.

Ok, so we did more than double the budget that year to add a few bells and whistles and for at least 12 months all was looking good. But nothing is ever that straight forward. Our business was growing, our clients were getting more demanding and the software had been built on a simple (and cheap) framework to speed up development, which quickly hit a ceiling of scalability and functionality.

After a swift Board meeting the decision was made to up the investment in the software to create release two. In reality, this actually meant starting again from scratch but since we thought we knew what we were doing now, what could go wrong.

With a bigger budget Pete built Version 2 in a new framework and with some outside help. Again, it was impressive what we achieved but it was very much a tool for our consultants, rather than a client facing software product. This was not a necessarily a bad thing. It was driving internal productivity and ensuring the quality of data, something we’d become recognised for. But keen to engage and excite our clients, we designed some impressive reporting formats, outsourcing the development to a third party. We learnt a lot at this stage, most of it painful and costly.

Having negotiated what seemed like a great deal with the outsourcing company, the reality is you get what you pay for. The ineptitude of one of their staff highlighted this, when we happened to stumble upon a tweet from one of their juniors saying how great it was to be put in charge of a project having only recently graduated – yes, our project.

Major overruns and a proliferation of bugs, which went untested turned out not to be the major issue. We’d developed an ‘almost’ amazing interactive front end…. which our clients did not want to use – “Just send us PDF prints” was the feedback. The problem was there was no PDF print functionality – somehow, we’d missed this during our market evaluation.

So fast forward several years and we now have a dedicated inhouse team of 10 software professionals who are great at what they do, producing a fantastic software platform, SIERA.

We have now, like the others, spent several millions on the software – all self-funded I might add. SIERA is used by our consultants (all 47 of them) to deliver tech enabled solutions to our clients – and it does it amazingly well. And it has helped us win some major instructions with leaders in the industry such as Schroders, LGIM, UBS, Hines and The Crown Estate.

Until recently, our investment has been predominantly under the bonnet, rather than client facing. In simple terms, if other sustainability software  products are like a getting into a shiny BMW, SIERA is like getting into the cockpit of an Airbus – you need a pilot to fly it, but you’ll get way further. SIERA is different to its competitors, and better.

Investing in SIERA is a continual process and we work with experts to create the optimal experience for the many types of users who engage with SIERA. Most recently we released our Climate Risk functionality that supports investment managers in setting and tracking their energy and net zero carbon targets, whilst highlighting high energy intensity buildings with poor energy ratings. It’s this level of insight that enables us to uniquely support our clients in managing their risks.

SIERA is an incredibly powerful software tool, totally niche to the real estate investment market. It helps our consultants to deliver amazing solutions to our clients, and it helps our clients understand and reach their sustainability goals. This is the essence of who we are.

I’ll keep you updated on SIERA’s continued evolution, in the meantime, if you’re interested in finding out more about SIERA please let me know.

Communicating COVID-19 impacts through Sustainability Reporting

With market uncertainty pervasive and belief in business deteriorating, using the annual sustainability report to restore confidence with all stakeholders is more important than ever.

Your next report will need to provide a clear, trustworthy narrative, detailing specific insights on how the pandemic has impacted on your sustainability strategy, business model, risks and stakeholder commitments.

Sustainability frameworks enable companies to provide reasonably comparable and useful information. However, no such template exists to compare how companies have responded to COVID-19.

EVORA have been making in-roads in accounting for the COVID crisis in our reporting for clients since March, learning more with each report, and share key areas below to consider during your next round of reporting:

1) Controlling the content

COVID-19 has impacted people in many ways. Employees may have experienced challenges adapting to a new way of working; property managers dealing with a whole new set of procedures and protocols to follow; tenants juggling the ‘return to work’ safely and local communities may have experienced unexpected environmental and social impacts.

By including a COVID-19 one-off section in the report; the opportunity may be missed to communicate the impacts of the pandemic in a more nuanced way, tailored to the different stakeholders affected. Instead, it will be more authentic weaved in specific messaging throughout the sustainability reporting, where relevant, through the voice of the affected stakeholder, for example a direct quote from an employee or a tenant.

We also encourage the simplification of the message – avoiding jargon, cliches and overly technical language, and, instead, using straight-forward, clear and concise language.

2) Mapping what is material

Materiality assessments inform meaningful sustainability communications, enabling companies to identify sustainability issues that are important to both their stakeholders and to business success. Used to their full potential they can help shape company strategy, galvanise internal functions and gain senior buy-in, as well as uniting disparate teams and processes.

As society deals with the pandemic, materiality assessments should be reassessed to better integrate sustainability into business strategy and to explore the relationship between a company’s impacts on a sustainability issue and the impact of that issue on the business. 

3) Dealing with the data

The shift to homeworking presents a unique challenge. Companies will be demonstrating a reduction in Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions in line with the reduction of office building energy consumption.

This presents several possible issues for the reporting company:

  • Any movement in reported emissions could mask the impacts of any genuine reduction activities
  • Distortion against targets set
  • Justification may be required for smaller energy reductions than others in the sector, or anticipated, because they have seen a lesser impact from the pandemic, for instance through keeping offices open, with higher ventilation requirements, rather than closing buildings completely.
  • Emissions have not been eliminated, rather they have been relocated to employee homes beyond the company’s direct control. Some might argue that the decrease in commuting related emissions makes up for this. In order to provide a credible comparison of year on year performance, quantifiable homeworking emissions should be considered for recognition.

Our initial response is to always explain data with fully contextualised narrative.

4) Shift to online-first

We recommend an online-first approach for corporate sustainability reporting. This enables the audience to more easily search, navigate and locate information. This format can enhance storytelling – enabling more in-depth features and linking direct to other relevant documents.

Stakeholder scrutiny of how organisations are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing heightened attention to the importance of corporate transparency on sustainability issues. EVORA design reporting strategies for organisations, enabling them to apply frameworks, communicate meaningful sustainability outcomes and impacts to key stakeholders and use reporting as a tool to improve sustainability performance. Get in touch with the EVORA reporting team today.

What is a better place, for people?

The current World GBC Health & Wellbeing Framework has been in the making for many years now but there is no doubt that living in the midst of a global pandemic has focused our minds on what both places, and better, means for us as a species. 

The first essential question is what is ‘place’?

It means so many different things to each of us, both individually, culturally and as a society.  In the current situation, it has come to mean both refuge and prison, not least due to the impact of the lack of choices imposed on us and what that does to our mental health.

The definition of office space has been changing rapidly over the last 5 years, driven by new trends in employee engagement, better understanding of the science behind productivity within the workplace, and wider realisation of the impact that unseen threats (long before COVID-19) have on both our short and long term health, happiness and performance.

The recent realisation that most office workers can function well from home is naturally leading to another round of floor tile-gazing as the commercial market asks itself ‘what do people want now?’.  Sadly, I suspect the answer is some way off…but it may be a better answer for people.

How did we get here? 

I can’t possibly begin to address the myriad responses to that issue, and are surely being written right now, in an attempt to answer this.  For me, part of the issue comes in our persistent refusal to consider ourselves a mammalian species, occupying the same spaces as other species on a single planet (not the place here to embark on single planet living and the anthroposcene).  Despite all our best efforts, we still have the same respiratory systems, neurological and physicals responses and social needs that our tribal ancestors did.  No amount of stone, clothing or behaviour can change the fundamentals of the Homo sapiens as a species, even if our jaw bite has altered slightly over the centuries.

As such, it should come as no surprise to us to discover that what matters to us is the people in those places that we miss most (see the copious employee surveys for evidence) and the sense of belonging to a tribe, be that family, colleagues or a combination.  Place, however, is now tinged with a sense of fear, and we must work harder than ever to alleviate that fear and visualise the invisible threats that we are all living with.

What is a ‘better place’? 

Philosophically, of course, the first question has to be, “compared to what?” In the resplendent glass houses of the developed cities, where there is an overwhelming choice of types of milk for your coffee in the lobby café, attention has focused on occupier facilities, flexible working space types and more human features within the office environment.  However, lest we forget the inequality inherent in air quality issues, the intensity metric of poor air quality versus ‘months of potential life reduced’ is brutal and unforgiving.  Focusing on key issue in isolation tend to lead to unintended consequences, which is why we are whole-heartedly supporting the 6 key principles of the new Health& Wellbeing Framework[1], which address both the inter-related factors of healthy places but also the whole building lifecycle.

Since we evolved into our original habitat, complete with sabre tooth tigers and other hungry predators, our natural defences evolved with us;  smell, taste, hearing.  We did not need to “see” air quality, since we lived mostly outdoors; we did not need to go to the gym, since our food needed to be picked, or chased; we did not need to meet our friends online, since the survival of the tribe depended on our sticking together.

As we stand on the border of a new era of engagement, understanding and opportunity, we do have the chance to reset the parameters of both place and human relationships.   A better place, for people, in this context, signifies one which both protects and nurtures, and to do so in the 21st Century requires new eyes and ears in the form of constant monitoring, and new reassurance in the form of visible compliance with new regimes.  The good news is that the impact of place on human health is now primary in everyone’s thoughts, and also that the technology is now available to provide the feedback we need from those places.  Whether that is our own bedrooms, the road outside or our office, solutions are now at hand that were inconceivable even 10 years ago.  

As we reconsider what it will take to get us back to better, this WGBC Framework could not come at a more relevant time.  Each crisis brings opportunity.

EVORA’s uniquely broad expertise enables the seamless embedding of health and wellbeing with broader ESG strategy, processes, and reporting commitments for holistic optimisation. Contact our team of 11+ qualified health and wellbeing experts for support.