By Paul Bubny
Over the nearly six months that the COVID-19 pandemic has been an unavoidable reality that has upended daily life as well as the economy, we’ve heard a lot about the ways in which businesses have adapted to the current reality of remote working and videoconferencing. We’ve heard less about how individuals have had to make the new normal work for them personally.
In view of Labor Day, the team at Connect Commercial Real Estate reached out to industry members for personal observations on how the work week has changed, as well as the ways in which the new normal is pretty much a carryover from the old normal. We gathered responses from both coasts as well as the Midwest, and from all disciplines within commercial real estate.
As might be expected, the challenges, professional and personal, have varied from individual to individual, and so have the ways in which they’ve met those challenges. What all have in common, though, is that they’ve found ways to make an unusual situation work and to find the positive.
Moreover, it’s safe to say that all would agree with Kevin Shannon, co-head of U.S. capital markets at Newmark Knight Frank. “Can we get to 2021 already? This year has certainly been strange,” he tells Connect.
Shannon says he has made the transition to working remotely “fairly well, and have found that I have more client interaction because of the logistical advantages of Zoom calls. It’s not the same, though, and I do miss seeing my team and clients in person.”
Jennifer Yashar, partner at Fried Frank, says that the dynamics of balancing work and personal life have stayed the same as before. “What’s changed are the added layers that have been introduced by the pandemic,” she says. “People are juggling a lot right now—a new work setting, homeschooling and childcare, less defined workday boundaries, and those who have taken care of sick family members or have been sick themselves.
“What helps a lot is the flexible nature of this job; as long as your work gets done, you can manage your schedule and your current situation,” she adds.
At Holland & Knight, Stuart Saft, practice group leader of the firm’s New York real estate practice, has had to make numerous adjustments in the logistics of getting his work done. “When I was in my office, my secretary sat directly in front of and facing me, and we would communicate by voice and hand signals all day long,” he says. “In addition, I had the lawyers with whom I worked most closely stationed within 40 steps from my office—close enough so that if I needed any of them or they needed me, we called and ran.”
Now, Saft says, “I get large documents FedEx’d to me daily and I marked them up and scan them to whoever needs them—usually my secretary in New Jersey—through a 120-page scanner that I purchased. I have my office phone next to me tied into my computer, so anyone calling me on my office number gets me instantly, although I have to answer my own phone and cannot screen calls.
“I have a high-speed color printer and am Staples’ best customer, because I am now on my fifth carton of paper. I also have acquired multiple file cabinets, file folders and all the other material one needs in an active office.”
Kathy Kwak, EVP of operations at Proper Title, says, “I have had to come up with a new structure. Before COVID-19, I would put new processes or workflows in place through in-person meetings. Now, I have to rely on Zoom or TEAMS and the share-screen option to demonstrate what I need done, so that each department’s workflow is more efficient and can keep up with the current times.”
Although even the CEO of Zoom Video Communications, Eric Yuan, spoke of the possibility of “Zoom fatigue” during his recent one-on-one webcast with Walker & Dunlop’s Willy Walker, there’s no denying that the platform has become all but essential. “While there are a lot of Zooms—which can get exhausting—the platform has been great for collaborating and feeling a more personal connection than you would a phone call,” says Emily Johnson at CRE-focused public relations firm Taylor Johnson. “While nothing can replace a face-to-face, Zoom has been our go-to for meetings.”
Even in sectors where employees continue coming to the office on a regular basis, the realities of the pandemic have imposed changes upon the workspace. “Our physical environment had to change to accommodate social distancing,” says Sandya Dandamudi, principal at GI Stone, a Chicago-based commercial stone provider to construction projects. “We have a hybrid team of people working from and coming to the office, and, as I am in the construction industry, we have had to put time aside for washing of tools and hands every two hours, and standing in line for temperature checks. But we still find ways to be efficient.”
In the construction sector, “Our whole industry has adapted without having to develop an entirely new structure,” says Mike Meagher, president of James McHugh Construction Co. “We limit how many people can be in an elevator or construction lift at the same time, and we enforce mask-wearing and social distancing. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve collaborated with our peers in the industry to develop best practices that have allowed us to continue working” with appropriate safeguards in place.
Fairstead’s Victoria Gousse notes that for each of us, adapting to working from home will vary widely, “based on the space and tools available. I have been able to adapt by having a dedicated space that includes all the essentials, docking stations for computer screens, laptops, printers/scanners and ergonomic chairs. Having a dedicated space or room that can act as your office for discussions, as is typical in the office, has allowed for a seamless transition.”
The transition has involved more than the physical environment, of course. “What I have learned throughout this pandemic is that now more than ever, it is important to adapt and be flexible,” says Adelaide Polsinelli, vice chair at Compass. “We are in challenging times. In times like this, it is best to go off script and connect with clients on a personal level.
“The best way to earn the respect of your clients is by demonstrating how you cope in a time of crisis,” she observes.
Working from home means spending more time with the fellow inhabitants of that home—your spouse, your kids, your pooches—and industry members describe how those relationships have shifted over the past six months.
Although Shannon says his current work habits are much the same as they were pre-pandemic, what’s different now is that “I frequently have lunch breaks with my family who are also home doing virtual classes. My dogs Nacho and Olive are loving COVID. Two to three dog walks a day totaling two to four miles has helped me avoid additional COVID pounds. I will look back on this strange COVID era as an exceptional bonding period that helped me grow closer with my family and my dogs, which is a blessing.”
Johnson says, “As a mother who has always worked in an office and maintained a traditional workday schedule, it’s a big change for me to be home with my kids during work hours and school holidays. It’s been life-changing, actually, and I plan to have a more flexible schedule in the future – even when we all return to the office and things get back to ‘normal.’ ”
When that return to normalcy occurs, industry members aren’t expecting matters to revert completely to the status quo, of course. For example, Karl Heitman, president of Heitman Architects, says his firm has been asked to help other businesses with back- to-work facility planning: “issues such as improving employee traffic flow patterns through a facility and evaluating air flow and interior layout changes. The pandemic really threw a wrench into many business operations, and companies want to make sure they are moving back to the office in a thoughtful and safe way.”
Mark Zettl, president of JLL’s property management practice, says his team has had to adapt to new procedures in building operations. “Additionally, shifts in behavior will start in the corporate real estate community as companies start to reimagine their workplace – and investors will need to respond accordingly with people-first, tech-enabled and responsible strategies,” he says. “Investors will also need to continue creating productive spaces for employees, reconnect tenants by enabling technology and reposition their portfolio strategies to evolve with the markets.
“With an emphasis on health and safety, organizations that foster a sense of community and create engaging experiences on and offline will increase employee morale, productivity and long-term business resiliency,” Zettl adds.
Polsinelli expects her post-pandemic modus operandi to be a combination of the global perspective that has seen her through CRE cycles and adaptability. “In some ways, I will continue to resume previous structures with more exciting features,” she says. “The new normal has created opportunities to re-invent ourselves. I have learned every system, software and program necessary to be independent in my career. I have learned that now is the time to be self-sufficient.”
Gousse’s Fairstead colleague, acquisitions and asset management VP Adam Sussi, has experienced a longer-term change in perspective as a result of the shift to remote working. “I’ve realized the routines in life that I used to think of as a hassle (e.g., the commute) are actually helpful in resetting my frame of mind,” he says. “For instance, I get to the office and I’m in work mode, and I get home and I’m in family mode. It’s really helpful to have a moment to wind down between those periods, and since I’ve been working from home, I haven’t had those moments to decompress.
“All that said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the continued productivity I’ve seen from the team and the broader firm while working and communicating remotely.”
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