Article | Adaptive Spaces

How Natalie Slessor uses psychology to create thriving built environments

Psychology is an unspoken art in the property sector and CBRE’s Natalie Slessor knows exactly how to use it to revive the spaces people use.

December 5, 2023

The image shows Natalie Slessor presenting  a key note at the ESG Portfolio Transitions Masterclass hosted at the CBRE, 363 George Street office.

Managing the extremities of client demands is something Nat Slessor does for a living. She’s already proven it on a global stage, having previously delivered the biggest deal in Lendlease’s history for one of the world’s largest tech companies.  

“It started out as a conversation and a meeting of minds between a small group of people on each side of the table. We eventually grew that to the biggest deal that Lendlease ever did. It went from a small piece of dirt to a $22 billion end state value agreement,” she recalls. 

As a waitress in the UK though, a younger version of Nat Slessor wasn’t quite as adept.  

“My first job was in customer service and like how many would start, I was a waitress - and I was a very, very bad waitress,” she laughs.  

“I was working at a restaurant inside a big sports club and I was too sociable. I wanted to talk to everyone, ask how their day was, sit down and have a glass of wine and something to eat with them. I was constantly being told off to stop talking to everybody and to do my actual job.” 

Despite this predicament, it’s certainly not to say that her early foray into customer service hasn’t served her well in her role today.  

“Being in customer service exposes you to life and how to interact with people,” she says.  

These days, Nat is CBRE’s Executive Managing Director of Property Management across the Pacific region. She’s only a few months into her role but affirms there’s something special about it.   

"I'm absolutely loving it. It’s different to what I've done before even though I've been in the property sector for 25 years now. I've always worked in and around property management, but never run a property management business.  

“But I think that's my greatest advantage. Because I don't do what my team does, it makes me a leader who's an enabler. I have to deeply understand what they need in order to win the race.” 

Winning this race involves plenty of multitasking and lots of small jobs that contribute to a much bigger impact in the commercial property space. From safety inspections to sustainability ratings to managing property and processing all of the accounting, Nat and her dedicated team handle it all for clients.  

Having been on the occupier side, the developer side, the consulting side and investment management side, property management is now something she proudly calls her “final frontier for completing the circle”.    

The hidden psychology of property 

The image shows Natalie Slessor speaking on a panel.

They’re two sectors that seemingly have little reason for co-existing, but that intersection is exactly where Nat finds her unique talents thriving today. How did this come about? By pursuing interests outside of property.   

“My father was a developer in London and did some great projects, but I felt I should forge my own path outside of property.” 

Killing time during the school holidays nonetheless involved loitering around her father’s work sites.  

"He would show me the development plans and say, ‘Look at what we're going to create’. But I was convinced I could do something different.  

“So when I went to university, I did psychology which I thought would be a solid contrast to property. Psychology was about people, life and the dynamics of human beings.”  

Working in the clinical psychology field at the age of 21 would prove to be a challenging stint for anyone with little life experience and it was with some encouragement from her father that Nat finally discovered her “soft landing in the property industry” during an internship for a small consultancy. 

“I was a research assistant on a piece of work around how your environment affects your psychology, so I became very interested in design and psychology. We looked at topics such as the neuro impacts of what is designed around us, the social impacts of the way a city is put together, as well as the impacts of property.  

“The impacts of our built environment are enormous. From safety outcomes, sustainability outcomes, health outcomes, it has a massive impact on everybody's lives. 

“It’s not about trying to make the world a better place but trying to make the place a better world. That's become my purpose and my life's passion.” 

Breaking property’s old traditions 

The property industry has come a long way since its traditionally male-dominated days. Even with a family in property, Nat has seen and overcome a few challenges herself during her rise to the top.  

“It's a bit old school and you do get generalised, but I'm a psychologist who works in property. I had a way of being unique and diverse for a different reason, so I used that to my advantage. 

“Thankfully, I haven't felt personally disadvantaged. I found a niche and stuck to it. My advice for other women is to find your niche, find your groove, and go with it.  

Challenges of modern built environments 

Nat knows what drives people into built environments and what doesn’t. Australia on a global scale is doing well in terms of its CBD placemaking initiatives, but its biggest issues still remain around affordability, cost of living and furthering sustainability.   

“The high cost of living in cities like Sydney and Melbourne results in an urban sprawl where people live further out and the infrastructure can't support bringing them back into the city where they need to work or be.  

When compared to other major cities such as New York, which maintains a rich placemaking culture despite its high cost of living, Nat says that there’s proven benefits in tradition and rental control.  

“Cities like New York, London, Rome and Athens have all got the benefit of time. And what happens with time is you get this pattern of inherent mixed use. There are new developments, but the benefit of riffing off the old and adaptable spaces is what creates character - and character and complexity are what humans actually like about places.  

Places that are layered with a little bit of complexity are fascinating. It makes people say: ‘I love this place’ or ‘I love this city’.  

"A sense of discovery around every corner. Hopefully we'll get there one day.” 

Benefits of reimagining the workplace 

There are valuable reasons for landlords and building owners to transform traditional workplaces. The first and foremost is to accommodate the businesses and talent of the future.  

“You need to embrace the challenge of what future workers and businesses need otherwise there's no other reason for office buildings to stand up,” Nat says. “You can't invest in an empty building, so it has to be full and it has to be accommodating growth.”  

Offices today need to be perceived more as a product rather than a property in order to be valuable. Similar to a smart phone, Nat explains that people engage with a product because of the way it operates and puts the user in control. 

“Think of a smartphone like an office building. What are its apps? What are the experiences that keep people coming back? The reasons for needing to use this product?  

“You can't be told to use a product; you have to want to use it because you see the benefits of the product. So rather than telling everyone to come back into the office, understand what benefits there are to those coming in.  

“If you can think of your building like a product and you’re benefits-led, you're close to being a good product. It's a product mindset much more than a property mindset.” 

Reaching the pinnacle of property management 

The image shows Natalie Slessor speaking on a panel.

Nat’s customer service acumen has evolved quite a bit since her glory days of overdelivering rapport to hungry customers. The deep care for the client is still intrinsically intact, but it’s more multifaceted across building trust, reputation and a record of highly satisfied stakeholders in property management.  

And for those who feel inspired to replicate her success in the world of property management, she has one piece of simple advice: Find something you truly care about, commit and enjoy the ride. 

"You hear people talk of a purpose or mission in their life. I never knew what that was. I just cared about people and the built environment, and the relationship between the two. So if you care about something, hang onto it, say yes to its unique opportunities and don't be afraid to be a little niche. 

“That's why I love and care about property management. It's actually about saying any building can be a great place. And it’s our job to help make that happen.” 

Property Management

We provide high-performing teams that remove friction from your day-to-day operations. Combining our global scale and local expertise, we manage your risk and engage your occupiers to maximise the value of your investment.

The image shows colleagues collaborating on a project at a table in an open plan office space.