The value of listening in negotiations

Labor Relations Report 

The following is excerpted from a story by Alex Nicoll, a reporter at The story focuses on how underutilized suburban corporate campuses are being revitalized as “mini towns” or “metroburbs,” with Bell Works leading the charge and successfully leasing new tenants despite other office buildings struggling in the era of remote work.

In 2007, Bell Labs closed the doors on its 2 millionsquare-foot office building in pastoral Holmdel, New Jersey. Sixteen years later, the massive former laboratory and research-and-development site has become, in the parlance of the landlord Ralph Zucker, a “metroburb.” By his account, it’s as bustling as it was when scientists in horn-rimmed glasses discovered the transistor in the 1940s, except that it’s now home to dozens of different office tenants, a slew of restaurants, a Montessori school, and even a public indoor basketball court. What’s more notable is that it’s gaining tenants, countering the trend among office buildings turned into echo chambers in era of remote work. With the campus now 95% leased, up from 75% before the pandemic, it could be a model for the future of working, living, and playing, Zucker, the president of Somerset Development, the site’s owner, said.

In suburban Chicago, the 150-acre former AT&T headquarters got the same treatment after the town of Hoffman Estates caught wind of the new life at the old Bell Labs. And there’s another metroburb in the making at the massive 1.7 million-square-foot former IBM offices in Boca Raton, Florida, which, according to the developer CP Group, is the largest building in the US south of the Pentagon. Before long, commercial tenants at the old AT&T site — rebranded as Bell Works Chicagoland — will be moving their casual meetings to the virtual golf links offered through the Swing Loose installation, Tara Keating, a vice president at the Garibaldi Group, who oversees leasing, said. The idea is getting replicated from the Bell Labs location, or Bell Works New Jersey, Keating said. 

Tara Keating (aka Tarajoy K. Freeman) is my wife. In January, she relocated to Chicago to direct the leasing of this massive project. She had spent 10 years at Bell Works negotiating leases. Her success in Holmdel led the owner of the buildings to ask her to duplicate that in Chicagoland. In eight months, she has already turned things around out there, and the construction on the spaces that she has leased is set to begin. Most of that is a testament to her being a highly skilled negotiator.

Tara has no formal training as a negotiator, per se. She is a licensed real estate broker, but her background is in marketing for a commercial real estate brokerage firm. She left marketing and jumped on the Bell Works project when other brokers couldn’t see the potential that she believed would change the landscape of commercial real estate, which ultimately flourished in the wake of the pandemic. Besides paying homage to the beautiful and talented woman that I have the honor of sharing my life with, I want to point out that anyone can become a great negotiator by honing the necessary skills.

Tara believes her success is rooted in her ability to listen. She never talks when it’s time to listen to what is being said by everyone who takes part in the conversation. She takes notes, she asks questions, and she makes sure that she has a clear understanding of everything. Most importantly, she doesn’t waste time with extraneous conversations. I’ve even heard her say that she was stepping away from a conference call and someone could text her after they were finished “talking over” one another. Tara never allows her emotions to show during a meeting. She is a deeply emotional person and displays them when the time is right, but at the table, an accomplished negotiator always maintains a neutral poker face.

After reviewing the notes from the meeting, she evaluates what is good and what is bad. Similar to a PBA contract, every clause is for sale — it’s just a matter of how much the other side is willing to pay for it. Because she listened intently and knows the tenant’s priorities for the space, she can set that price. There is give and take in every negotiation, whether it’s a commercial lease agreement or a collective negotiations agreement.

If we, as PBA negotiators, listen to everyone, including residents, business owners and the governing body, we can learn their priorities. As a marketing expert, Tara makes the building so attractive that tenants want to move there, and they are willing to pay a bit more rent to get what they want. As a PBA, we must be willing to “market” ourselves. Direct interaction with the public is key. When you have time, get out of the car and meet the taxpayers. While it’s usually taken as a negative, the reality is that they do pay our salaries. Which means they could exert pressure on the governing body to increase our salaries if we need that at a council meeting.

Today, we have the added advantage of being able to use social media to pour out a constant stream of the positive activities that PBA members engage in on and off duty. Address the mayor and council on a regular basis, not only at contract time, but at regular council meetings. I know from experience, thanking a council member for passing a simple parking ordinance that helps solve a problem leaves a positive impact for subsequent talks. When the mayor has office hours, the delegate and/or president should be stopping in with a cup of coffee and no specific agenda, just to catch up on what’s going on in town.

Two million square feet is huge, and Tara knows there is a limit. Similarly, we must know that there is a limit to the municipal budget, but unlike the glass and concrete surrounding a building, the salary and wage line can be expanded if the town can reap the benefits of a better police department. It is our task as skilled negotiators to express that.