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Lynn Spence on Pandemic Workplace Changes

June 15, 2021

COVID-19 has ushered in the rapid transformation of workplaces, worksites and networking arenas throughout the industry, from adopting tech tools that enable remote collaboration to rethinking hygiene and safety, as well as employees’ mental health during times of crisis.

Lynn Spence, Chief People Officer, offers insight in the following Q&A:

Which solutions to these challenges could remain long-term and which won’t?

I have had the opportunity to discuss this topic at length with many other HR leaders across the AEC industry, and it seems that everyone is in a similar phase on issues that include developing return-to-work plans, assessing the adoption of vaccines, and identifying future plans for a remote workforce. Although many companies who have transitioned to remote work are seeing more productivity as a result of that, there are concerns about whether it’s sustainable within its current structure and form. People tend to be spending more time working, and they no longer have the helpful mental ‘reset’ that is afforded by commuting between home and work, and having physical boundaries in between living and working spaces. This leads to the potential for increased burnout.

 

How are employees reacting to remote work, in terms of the biggest positives? What is your strategy going forward for remote?

 Remote work has given people more flexibility, and fewer challenges as relates to juggling parenting and family obligations. Although we have always promoted a healthy work-life balance here at T&M, I believe that the flexibility of a remote culture has still been positive for employees from that perspective. Now that individuals and teams have conclusively proven that they can work from home productively and efficiently, people feel more trusted and empowered, because they know they aren’t under constant supervision from their managers.

We recognize, too, that the past year has taken a toll on employees mentally. In March of 2020, many companies announced that they were closing for two weeks … and this was extended into summer and fall … and now we are past the one-year anniversary. This uncertainty about the future, having to adapt to new routines, and general anxiety about the pandemic itself have all been challenging, and our longstanding wellness committee has really demonstrated a heightened focus in helping employees manage and access needed resources to navigate these difficulties and continue to thrive. For example, we’ve seen good engagement and received good feedback about our virtual yoga classes, our Cleveland Clinic employee coaching program offering, and our more frequent communications from managers and senior leadership. Most notably, we dedicated a half day of  Mental Health Safety training for our leaders in an effort to create awareness and provide support to employees and coworkers who may be struggling during the pandemic.

As we plan our emergence from the pandemic and review our return-to-work plans, we are taking various remote-work scenarios under consideration.

                                                                                         

What’s your plan for firm-wide return to offices, or not? % that will return?

With warmer weather approaching and cautious optimism about vaccination rollouts, we are finally at a point where we can put specific planning in place. It is our goal by Memorial Day to communicate our plans for a phased return to the office over the summer and fall. Our policy will undoubtedly evolve based on updated guidance from health officials as well as lessons learned, and it will include provisions for flexible hours, full or partial remote work depending on role, and other flexible options to support the future workforce. We are beginning to survey employees based on region, to establish consistency and understand expectations as it relates to team as well as business needs. Meanwhile, our Health and Safety practice has already been hard at work throughout the past year putting safety measures in place at all of our offices, including redesigned office layouts to accommodate social distancing, new sanitization protocols, and new signage. We are also in the process of making technology upgrades to conference rooms and other areas to more effectively accommodate a hybrid remote and in-person model.

 

What risks and rewards lay ahead for AEC professionals, clients and regulators?

For AEC firms in particular, as well as many of our clients, the pandemic presents opportunities for rewards in the sense that we are the experts companies count on to help them redesign their facilities and their processes, to make them better able to emerge from this pandemic and mitigate the risks posed by future ones. Creating safe work and school spaces, ensuring sustainable futures, improving the air quality of facilities, and taking other steps to make spaces less conducive to virus transmission will be important priorities for months and years to come. This situation has also created rewarding possibilities to open up the talent pool, not only to more qualified professionals but also to more diverse hires. There are not enough skilled professionals to fill the need in this industry, and in this new work environment, geographic proximity to the office is no longer a barrier for many hiring managers. Of course, this also presents an element of risk, because it means that people will have more options for how and where they want to work. Therefore, retaining high-level and diverse talent will be more challenging in the future.