In our previous post in this series Commercial Lease Negotiations in Uncertain Times, we discussed the concept of improvements to existing leased premises. In this post, we are continuing our property improvement conversation and have invited experts from the industry to speak to anticipated market trends surrounding property and design improvements in commercial spaces.
We are thrilled to welcome the following guests:
- Ericka Miller, Senior Vice President at KimbleCo
- Heather Weerheim, Director of Business Development at Greiner Construction
- Shari Bjork, Principal at DLR Group
- Abigail Heimel Peterson, Healthcare Team Lead, Gardner Builders
What is your current role and how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your day-to-day work?
Ericka: In my role as Sr. Vice President at KimbleCo – a certified, woman-owned, full-service commercial real estate firm in the Twin Cities Metro – we have felt the impact on our day to day work schedule over the last 6 months. Covid-19 has impacted our work mostly in not being able to meet in person very often with our clients, prospects and colleagues. However, business is still moving forward and since our team has worked mostly virtually for 10 years or more, we feel it has been easier for us to pivot – we have been fully set up to work from our home offices for some time! The hardest part is having very limited in-person time with our clients.
Shari: My primary responsibilities are with DLR Group’s Workplace studio as a Client Leader, Project Manager and Senior Interior Designer. DLR Group is an integrated global design firm with 1,200 employee-owners in 29 offices across the country and internationally. I am based in the firm’s Minneapolis location.
Like most professional services firms, we have been working from home since mid-March and fortunately, we were fully prepared as a company to make that transition. Prior to COVID-19, I spent a significant portion of my workdays in face-to-face meetings with clients, as well as in internal collaboration sessions with project teams. As we began working from home, those activities shifted to 100% virtual engagements using Zoom and Microsoft Teams – both of which I had already been using – as the primary communication platforms.
The most significant impacts have been on how we collaborate with clients and internal design teams. The firm introduced some additional technology tools to support collaboration (which I have had to learn), and I rely more heavily on Microsoft Teams to chat with and mentor team members throughout the day.
In recent weeks, I have started meeting with some internal teams back at the office and have my second in-person client meeting next week. We have made collaboration and mentorship over virtual platforms work, but it cannot replace the efficiency and value of meeting face-to-face for some aspects of our process.
Heather: My current role is Director of Business Development and the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted just about every aspect of my day-to-day work. My main job is to cultivate new business partnerships and maintain existing ones. Connecting with people when social distancing as recommended has been difficult, to say the least! I’ve found creative and safe ways to connect with people.
Abigail: As a project manager and market sector leader in healthcare, this has been the most challenging few months of my career. My day-to-day work focusing on construction projects inside clinics and hospitals has either stopped completely or accelerated dramatically. No two days are ever the same.
How has your company had to pivot to adjust to the everchanging conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Ericka: We have been set up well to work from home for years and while many of our clients (local and national) have had the capability – they haven’t had the experience of navigating the waters of communicating with their landlords, tenants and/or vendors through something like this, so our first order of business was to reach out back in March to check-in to see how we could help. We have really worked hard to learn as much as we can about health and safety in the workplace during a pandemic so we can be better advocates for our clients. The good news is that we have been seeing the continuing need for space even if it looks different going forward.
Shari: DLR Group was well-positioned for the shift to work from home (WFH). Pre-COVID, we had already upgraded our technology and migrated our servers to the Cloud, so access to electronic files and information was seamless. As a global firm, our team members already were able to work remotely and across geographies. We had been using Zoom as a meeting platform for years. I was already working with one national client primarily via Zoom and other technologies, so figuring out how to work with and deliver projects on a virtual platform was not a big deal.
Early in the pandemic, our firm implemented a regular communication strategy to keep employees informed and connected via our intranet, virtual all-staff town halls, and smaller team meetings. As the weeks progressed, the firm developed new protocols for return to the office, addressing sanitization, circulation, use of common areas, masking, registration upon entry, etc. We assigned liaisons in each office to assist, and these protocols have evolved as needed over the past few months.
Like many organizations, the biggest issue we face is how to maintain a strong culture, how to collaborate and how to mentor virtually the longer we stay in a WFH mode. We’ve introduced some exciting new design, collaboration and process management tools and software to help with these challenges, but virtual interaction has its limitations. The physical workspace helps us connect on a level that can’t be replaced by Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
Heather: Greiner Construction’s business plan is flexible and market sectors adaptable as we navigate our way throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. While one market sector is flat because of short term lease renewals another is expanding because of the cost to borrow money. We remain optimistic during this time because of our multiple markets and lean business model.
One of the pivots we made was to rethink our process in both the office and the field to keep our employees, clients and subcontractors safe. We needed to pivot quickly since Construction was deemed essential when the stay at home order went in effect in March. On the job site, we developed a preparedness plan which continues to evolve, we mobilized signage stating our new procedures and hand sanitation stations. In the office we’ve adjusted how we connect with each other, our clients and sub-partners given most are working from home.
Abigail: For our office staff, we were able to pivot pretty seamlessly to remote working. We started by having an all-company check-in meeting via Zoom twice a week and gradually tapered them off as we adjusted. Overall, it has been a group effort to stay connected and continue to be nimble finding ways to deliver projects. The field staff had the incredibly challenging task of keeping up with ever-changing safety guidelines to keep everyone on site safe and healthy.
As local and national businesses are bringing employees back to work and/or opening their doors to customers and clients, what are some of the changes you have seen implemented to increase safety in workplaces?
Ericka: We have had the privilege of being in several different networking groups (some as often as weekly) with heads of real estate and health and safety leads of large national and even global companies who are brainstorming on this very subject. Some of the changes we have seen include:
- Bringing people back in waves (20% then 40% then 60% and so on to make sure they can control any outbreaks if they happen) but also many are deciding not to go back at all in 2020
- Having a plan in place for a full return to working virtually should an outbreak occur
- Increased cleaning in high touch areas
- Capacity controls
- Increase in touchless devices
- Adjusting company policy to allow for checks on the wellness of employees returning to work, use of company common areas and rules for PPE
- New ways to deliver great customer service and product delivery in a safe way
- Protocols: Most businesses have implemented new protocols that address density, safety, sanitization, circulation, visitor protocols and personal protection.
- Workplace Modifications: All businesses and industries are not the same. We’ve seen and assisted clients with a variety of responses based on the conditions of their pre-COVID workplace. Whether they own or lease their space is a factor, as is when and how their employees will be returning to the office.
Modifications have ranged from minimal to significant. On the more minimal side, we have assisted clients with updating plumbing fixtures to be touchless, added some barriers where social distancing is more difficult to achieve, or made minimal changes to workstations, meeting, and social spaces. For other clients, we’ve reorganized their entire open office to decrease density and achieve proper social distancing. On the more significant side, we have been assisting clients with rethinking their entire approach to the future workplace—which could result in a reduced real estate footprint and/or the allocation of square footage to support primary activities that will bring people back to the office either full or part-time.
- Indoor Air Quality: A component of our business is High-Performance Design and Engineering, and indoor air quality is an extremely critical component to controlling the spreading of disease. Understanding that all properties are in a different starting place, we have developed strategies for property landlords and end-users that help with filtering air, circulating air, and sanitizing mechanical equipment.
Heather: We have been requested by many of our clients to provide plexiglass barriers at reception desks and at furniture stations with walls that don’t provide proper protection from employees. Many are working in staggered shifts or are not coming back to the office at all until 2021.
Abigail: The biggest changes we are seeing are the touchless entry and exit procedures along with adding directional signage. Restrooms and breakroom areas have also required many adjustments to reduce contact between employees and implement more cleanable materials.
What is the most common advice you find yourself offering your clients during these unprecedented times?
Ericka: The most common advice we are giving our clients is to communicate early and often and be prepared for hard conversations with your tenants, landlords, property managers, etc. Rely on your broker to help with those conversations. Be prepared to show how your business has been affected. If your business is suffering, speak with your lender, attorney and accountants for advice on programs that may be able to help get you through this. Finally, do your absolute best to work with instead of against others during this time – the outcome will be so much better!
Shari: In the short term, the solution to the problem is multi-faceted. It is important to consider a toolkit of solutions that include new workplace protocols; intensified cleaning and ongoing sanitization; enhanced HVAC system modifications; and touchless features in high traffic areas such as entries, lobbies and restrooms. Furniture and workspace modifications may be necessary to accommodate new protocols and density.
Bigger picture, if a client is considering making long-term changes to their workplace or real estate, make sure those changes are human-centric and future-focused while respecting current health and safety concerns. Employees are an organization’s number one cost, but also their number one asset. Understanding “why” people are going to come back to the office should be the driver behind any significant changes and expenses outside of short-term safety.
We are often re-visiting with our clients what happened after 9/11 as a comparison of not reacting too quickly. When 9/11 occurred, there was a lot of talk around organizations moving out of major metropolitan areas, no high-rise buildings would ever be built again, etc. The reality nearly 20 years later is that the real changes happened around security, not real estate.
People are going to come back to the office, but the reasons and durations will be different, therefore the workplace will look different. We need to make sure the future workplace is flexible and resilient so it can support continued change and the physical and mental needs of the people who occupy the space.
Heather: My personal advice is to allow yourself and others grace during unprecedented times. Unfortunately, you have no control over a global pandemic, until you accept this, it’s going to be an uphill battle every day.
Abigail: In medical office buildings specifically, I have had numerous conversations with clients about air quality, air exchanges, and how existing systems can be adjusted. The best advice I can give is to consult HVAC experts and get to the bottom of what you really are trying to accomplish. Increasing the amount of air going in and out of a room can only go so far and you are pushing the limits of the base building units that serve many spaces. You cannot ‘virus-proof’ the air in an office building, but you can make a series of small adjustments to many systems and protocols to create a healthy a safe space everyone can feel comfortable in.
Coming Up Next
Next week, we will continue the conversation surrounding property improvements with Ericka, Shari, Heather, and Abigail.